How National Mechanisms Can Protect Journalists and Address the Issue of Impunity: A Comparative Analysis of Practices in Seven Countries

Publication Date
October 30, 2017

"[T]he most effective responses to the safety of journalists are those born and led by a broad coalition of stakeholders that include media, civil society, authorities where possible and international organisations." - Jesper Højberg, Executive Director, IMS

This global study by International Media Support (IMS) analyses the efforts to safeguard journalists in seven countries where environments of conflict and instability challenges the ability of journalists to produce good, in-depth journalism. Approximately 640 journalists have lost their lives in the last decade, of which over 90% took place in countries with conflict or authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, impunity rates for those who commit crimes against journalists hover near 90%. IMS' study aims to provide a mapping and greater understanding of what works - and what does not work - when it comes to addressing the safety of journalists around the world.

The publication is a deliverable of the project "Promoting the UN [United Nations] Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity," funded by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs/Danida and implemented by IMS in partnership with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). (The Plan is a framework for coordinating, developing, and improving existing responses to threats against journalists that involves sharing national experiences, more deeply engaging the media sector, identifying good practices, and increasing coordination.) The project aims to document and share international best practices and support application of them by relevant actors, including in-country policymakers and relevant media organisations. Research was carried out over a period of six months in seven countries - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Iraq, and Colombia. The process involved data collection, consultations with a wide range of in-country stakeholders, and in-depth interviews with those directly affected and involved in addressing issues related to safety and protection.

The report analyses on-the-ground projects that address major threats against journalists in collaborative ways in the seven countries, examining not only initiatives in place but also the process of establishing them, the roles of different stakeholders involved, and the challenges they continue to face. For each country report, the authors looked at the political context and media landscape alongside a review of the main threats and challenges journalists face.

According to the study, the media in these seven countries is robust. But journalists in all seven countries are subject to a wide range of attacks and interference. For the most part, these take place with impunity. Journalists interviewed for the report also cited unsafe work environments, where they were not provided with equipment or training. Fierce competition, low wages and lack of job security push journalists to pursue risky assignments, with little support from their newsrooms and no risk assessment. A lack of professionalism and independence among the media, manifested by partisanship, inadequate fact checking, or unethical practices, also contributes to a dangerous climate.

In line with the UN Plan of Action, which recognises the importance of a gender-sensitive approach, the report took stock of threats and challenges specific to women journalists. These vary from country to country, but the most commonly cited problems in this report include physical harassment in the field and in the office, online harassment, lack of advancement, and family and social pressure, in addition to threats and attacks. Only two initiatives featured in the report offer safety responses specifically geared to women journalists.

With regard to the legislative framework for protection of the journalists in each country, the authors found that, while most countries have constitutions that articulate freedom of expression, other statutes curtail this right. The Philippines' penal code criminalises libel, while laws restricting online freedom of expression in Nepal and Pakistan include criminal penalties. Iraq's penal code favours plaintiffs bringing complaints against the media, and influential individuals abuse these to intimidate journalists, who rarely have the financial means for counsel or fines, into withdrawing articles. Afghanistan and Indonesia have legal frameworks that strongly support freedom of expression, but high rates of attacks against journalists with impunity, often by police, military, or government officials, weaken these in practice. In a handful of countries, the government has taken some steps toward strengthening the statutes that protect journalists.

The report shows that safety responses in the seven countries have been implemented through national state-led mechanisms, coalitions and other multi-stakeholder structures, partnerships between organisations with complementary resources and expertise, and stand-alone programmes administered by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and professional associations. Combined, the safety efforts in these countries have directly rescued more than 1,000 journalists and saved hundreds of others from prison or fines. Each country chapter examines two to four mechanisms or other safety responses in place in those countries. A review of the programmes analysed shows that there are a wide range of tactics for protecting journalists, from 24–hour bodyguards to WhatsApp groups. (For more, see the Analysis chapter, which looks at: state mechanisms; coalitions, partnerships, and networks; and rapid response programmes and monitoring.) The report's findings suggest that coordinated national structures, which include participation by the media and media support groups and relevant government agencies, can improve conditions for journalists. Examples:

  • Despite several flaws, which are evaluated in the country chapter, Colombia's protection programme for journalists, which provides bodyguards, cell phones, and other material support, has contributed to a significant reduction in fatal attacks against journalists there.
  • In Iraq, a series of dialogues between journalists, media support groups, and security forces, officials, and parliamentarians resulted in a formal Memorandum of Understanding "regulating" their relationship, as well as improvements to the security situation. The channels of communication established through this project helped colleagues bring attention to Afrah Shawqi's abduction, resulting in the authorities taking prompt action.
  • The Journalist Safety Hubs project in Pakistan brings together the resources of the Pakistan Journalist Safety Fund, which provides funds for relocation and other needs of journalists under threat, with the reach of a nationwide network of press clubs and oversight from Freedom Network, a watchdog group.
  • The Afghan Journalists Safety Committee (AJSC), among other activities, evacuated hundreds of journalists when the Taliban took over Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province in 2015 and burned down nearly all the area's media houses. More broadly, Afghanistan has established broad, locally anchored coalitions of government authorities, media, and civil society organisations around a series of interlinked activities that together address the safety of journalists. These safety mechanisms aim to provide journalists in distress with assistance such as relocation, safe houses, legal advice, safety training workshops, conflict-sensitive journalism training, and advocacy campaigns against press freedom violations and for improved legislation.
  • In the Philippines, press freedom advocates have teamed up with Catholic Church to shelter journalists under threat.

One of the weaknesses of these country-wide mechanisms, as pointed out in the study, is the fact that the mechanisms are largely dependent on foreign funding to function. Also, a lack of coordination and agreed joint priorities amongst international media development organisations and amongst local media development actors in some of the countries surveyed has in some instances weakened the overall impact of the efforts made to improve safety. In several country studies, it was noted that the media itself does not champion safety for its journalists vigorously enough (among stakeholders, civil society has led most efforts). One positive model featured in the report is Pakistan's Editors for Safety, a forum organised by the country's main media outlets to share information and give media coverage to attacks against journalists, regardless of where they work.

Coordination and consistency in engagement with national initiatives, international NGOs, and international NGOs (INGOs) is one area that needs improvement. One salient example is the International Friends of Media Alliance on Safety, a group of more than a dozen international organisations formed in 2012 to support the Pakistan Coalition on Media Safety (PCOMS), a multi-stakeholder national platform to promote a unified agenda on safety for journalists. After some initial rounds of communication, the alliance dissipated.

In several countries, the UN Plan of Action had some positive influence by helping legitimise media safety work and encouraging government engagement. Civil society in Iraq and Pakistan, for example, were able to persuade governments to participate in forums to improve security for journalists. This has strengthened advocacy and dialogue over individual cases and legislation that impacts journalists. The Plan has also helped galvanise media communities and NGOs to collaborate and identify joint actions. Some apparent shortcomings in the Plan's implementation, however, include low awareness, lacklustre participation from international bodies, and lack of a visible, objective-based implementation strategy. Journalists interviewed for this study were either unaware of the Plan's existence or knew little of its content or aspects of its implementation. Outside the focus countries, implementation of the Plan has been lean.

Furthermore, combatting impunity in attacks against journalists remains a major challenge due to lack of political will, weak institutions overseeing law and order, and slow-moving courts. Several groups highlighted in the report have made progress in individual cases through advocacy, independent investigations, and legal assistance. The Alliance of journalists in Indonesia (AJI), for example, dispatched lawyers to Bali following the 2009 murder of reporter A.A. Narendra Prabangsa, leading to convictions of all suspects behind the killing. Until those people behind threats and attacks are identified and prosecuted, as they were in that case, the impact of protection programmes and other safety solutions will be temporary and limited.

The conclusion section outlines some good practices emerging from the research and analysis. Highlights:

  • There are several advantages to state-led mechanisms, but they function best when media and civil society are active participants, providing expertise and oversight.
  • When multiple actors participate in other initiatives outside of state-led mechanisms, it lends a more prominent voice to journalist safety issues and facilitates coordination of national objectives. Having a lead group or individual on the ground to coordinate stakeholders is essential.
  • Another asset of a safety response system is national reach. Different initiatives have achieved this by establishing offices, chapters, or representatives in regions throughout the country, mobilising large memberships to unions and associations, and cultivating volunteer networks.
  • Several groups have made innovative use of opportunities, policies, and resources specific to their national environments. Working with sectors of civil society that are not traditionally associated with media safety is one approach to consider.
  • Focused objectives are needed to ensure mechanisms don't falter through too broad an agenda. At the same time, there is a need to take a comprehensive approach that looks at how to improve conditions as well as respond to emergencies.

From these country experiences, it is possible to extrapolate five main principles to guide stakeholders in developing and implementing collaborative measures for improving the safety of journalists and combatting impunity:

  1. Strategy: An informed strategic approach is needed behind the development of a mechanism, coalition, or more diverse set of safety responses.
  2. Presence: Effective implementation of a mechanism or other safety response requires the presence of implementers and other committed stakeholders on many levels.
  3. Collaboration: National-level joint platforms, coalitions, and other coordinating structures strengthen the work of stakeholders.
  4. Influence: Mechanisms should engage stakeholders who have influence on policy or can take direct action to protect journalists and combat impunity.
  5. Sustainability: Creating an enduring mechanism relies on several factors, including committed participants with clear points of contact and a lead group, agency, or individual.

"As the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity enters its next phase, we now have a considerable range of national experiences to from in order to work together and build up nationally-driven collaborative safety responses."

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Email from Helle Wahlberg to The Communication Initiative on November 30 2017. Image credit: yourmiddleeast.com