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OP-ED: Observing the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists

  • Published at 12:06 am November 2nd, 2020
media freedom
A free press is crucial to a functioning democracy BIGSTOCK

Media freedom provides the information needed to hold powerful people to account

If you can read this article, it is because of efforts to secure media freedom around the world. However, where such freedom is not realized, journalists and other media workers have paid a heavy price. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over 600 journalists and media workers have been killed in the past decade, constituting approximately one death every five days on average. Of those, the UN has found that nearly 9 in 10 deaths remain unresolved. 

In growing recognition of the dangers and lack of justice for media workers worldwide, the UN General Assembly has proclaimed November 2 to be the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. 

This day brings attention to the ways that impunity damages societies and erodes democracies by covering up human rights abuses and corruption. 

In both online and offline spaces, journalists are confronted with threats of torture, kidnapping, harassment, imprisonment, and murder. Such threats against journalists are often committed with impunity and serve to constrict media environments. 

Among several concerning trends, the proportion of countries with a “very bad” media freedom ranking rose to 13% in 2020 according to the World Press Freedom Index. Lethal attacks against journalists also remain relatively common. 

Although attacks have decreased slightly, Reporters without Borders notes that 49 journalists were killed for their work in 2019 alone. Women journalists and media professionals also face the brunt of threats, attacks, and intimidation online, further jeopardizing their safety and ability to speak freely. 

Unaccountable digital tools such as artificial intelligence have been deployed on a massive scale to curate and moderate news content online. Surveillance, attacks on anonymity of sources, and encryption have all increased the scale of the threat facing journalists and further complicated attempts to end impunity. 

Media freedom serves a fundamental public interest, providing the information needed to hold powerful actors to account and maintain democratic societies. This is particularly important as the global environment for media has only worsened, facing a combination of old and emerging threats. 

Attacks on media freedom can ripple throughout societies, decreasing trust, prosperity, and resilience, while increasing corruption. Given these effects, media freedom should be considered a lynchpin of other human rights, and attacks on media freedom should rightly be considered attacks on human rights themselves. 

States have a large role to play in maintaining and facilitating media freedom in their countries. However, sometimes, governments also jail journalists or restrict media freedom, requiring an international response to truly maintain human rights and media freedom worldwide.

Today’s commemoration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists also falls on a particularly unique time in history. As the international community struggles to deal with the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of impunity against journalists has gained even more importance. 

In the face of an unprecedented “infodemic” of false or misleading information about Covid-19, the pandemic has served to underline the role of press freedom in providing societies with access to accurate information on how to protect one’s health and that of one’s community. 

The pandemic has also exacerbated existing threats to media freedom, and its disruptive effects are upending business models and posing an existential threat for independent media worldwide. Many laws designed to counter disinformation during Covid-19 have also facilitated threats and attacks against journalists, with the International Press Institute noting that over 400 media freedom violations have occurred as of September 2020. 

The pandemic has only highlighted the importance of media freedom while also giving governments an opportunity to further restrict journalists’ important work and leave issues of impunity unaddressed.

To counter these new and emerging challenges, journalists, civil society, governments, and international organizations have joined forces to protect and promote media freedom. Canada and the UK have formed the Media Freedom Coalition, a partnership of 37 countries from around the world working together proactively to advocate for media freedom, online as well as offline, and for the safety of journalists and media workers. 

Working with UNESCO, they have created a Global Media Defence Fund to support journalists in distress, cover legal expenses and initiatives, create peer support networks, and support governments to develop national action plans. 

On November 16, Canada and Botswana will co-host the second Global Conference for Media Freedom convening journalists and experts from around the world to address the most pressing challenges to media freedom. As a result of the unprecedented contemporary threats to media freedom, it is more important than ever to pay tribute to all those journalists who have lost their lives to give us the facts we need to make informed decisions for ourselves, our communities, and to hold those in power to account. 

We hope that Bangladeshis will join us on November 16, as the international community takes an important next step to address impunity for attacks against journalists and promote media freedom worldwide.

Benoit Prefontaine is the High Commissioner of Canada to Bangladesh.