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The Worlds of Journalism Study is a cross-national collaborative project assessing the state of journalism in the world through representative surveys with journalists.

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UNESCO is the lead UN Agency for promoting freedom of expression and safety of journalists as part of its mandate to “promote the free flow of ideas by word and image”.

Interview with Guilherme Canela De Souza Godoi, UNESCO, Chief, Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists Section

Please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety.

I started working on the issue of journalists’ safety before joining UNESCO. I was working on the protection of the freedom of expression of children in Latin America, including the role of journalists in reporting on children's issues. Even in relation to the human rights of children, you have very complex situations where journalists might also be attacked because of doing this kind of coverage, for instance, international trafficking of children. My previous position included discussions with journalists in Latin America on how they could report better on children's issues as well as the importance of them also keeping their safety while doing this kind of coverage. This was how I started working on safety of journalists’ issues, but it was a cross-cutting element while my priority was to discuss freedom of expression for children and by children. After that, in the last 15 years I joined UNESCO at first as a national officer for Brazil where the situation of safety of journalists was, and still is, unfortunately an issue that should be taken care of. Then, just a few years later they asked me to be the Regional Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean on these issues and the focal point for the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists on the Issue of Impunity in Latin America. Unfortunately, Latin America is the most violent region against journalists, particularly on the killings, or the second one. While I was there, a significant part of my time was dedicated to this topic: to the discussion with the different stakeholders, including the government on how to develop the policies for the three Ps - the prevention, the protection, and the prosecution of the crimes against journalists. More recently, in the last three and a half years, I am coordinating the global action of UNESCO on the safety of journalists and freedom of expression.

Which threats do you perceive as being the biggest ones to journalists’ safety today?

This is a difficult question, because it really depends on the region or on the context. The major threats are not the same, depending on the country or on the region, but overall speaking, we still have physical threats all over the world. We still have killings. The killings are the crudest way of silencing a journalist. Even one killing will be unacceptable, but we have much more than one in all the different regions. Then there are other kinds of physical violence. UNESCO has published extensively, for instance, about the violence against journalists reporting on protests. Journalists are beaten. Some of them become blind because of the rubber bullets. Others have their equipment confiscated or broken. There is a set of physical violence that is important. Then we have another trend of online violence, particularly against women journalists, which is very powerful. The online harassment has important implications for mental health even for the actual world outside of the online environment. We also have the surveillance online that is another aspect of these digital threats and other phenomenon like doxxing. There is a package of trends on online violence, which is really across borders. It's not a particular country or a particular region. It's unfortunately widespread. Then there is a third element in terms of the safety that is also present in different parts of the world - the use of the judicial system to attack journalists, the so-called SLAPPs. This is really increasing - the number of journalists imprisoned, or the number of journalists being sued just for exercising legitimately their freedom of expression, their press freedom. Then, although it's not that easy to classify it as violence, but the economic implications of the challenges media and news media are facing all over the world in terms of the economic difficulties. This has important impacts also on the violence story, because the less you are protected by media companies, the less you have the social security. All of these have an implication for violence. Finally, as a cross-cutting element, you are very much concerned with the mental health issues, the psychological violence. All in all, there is no one particular trend. It’s a package that depends on the region and on the context.

How would you define journalists’ safety?

I would use the definition of the UN Plan of Action. There should be a comprehensive, holistic definition of journalists’ safety that is taking care of all those components. There is a physical element, there is a psychological element, there is a legal element, and there is an economic perspective on that. This is in terms of how you define what is being safe, and therefore on the other side of the coin, what the attacks to safety are. If you look into the indicator that is agreed by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - SDG 16.10.1, it is very much concentrated in a typology of crimes and also killing, kidnappings, arbitrary detention. This is, of course, important because you need to have indicators but the definition of the UN Plan of Action goes beyond that. It is a more comprehensive view of the different elements that are important to guarantee the safety of journalists.

What would you say is your greatest personal achievement in the area of journalist safety?

I don't think it's a personal achievement. It's a collective achievement of all the colleagues involved in this, but I would say that if I needed to pick one, one of the most crucial elements in this debate is fighting impunity. In all sorts of violence, including violence against journalists, impunity is always a very important factor. If you have high rates of impunity, you feedback to the cycle of violence. When perpetrators see that it does not cost anything to perpetrate violence, that they are not going to be punished, then the chances that the cycle of violence will continue are higher. Therefore, fighting impunity in crimes against journalists is a crucial element of this strategy. We can't fight impunity if we don't engage the judicial systems in this conversation. If I needed to pick one of the achievements, I would say it would be the establishment of what we call the UNESCO Judges’ Initiative, which was created when I was the Regional Advisor in Latin America. It started as a Latin American project, and today it is a global UNESCO initiative. This is because prosecutors, judges and judicial personnel are fundamental for this goal of fighting impunity. We started this initiative 10 years ago in 2013. We are marking the tenth anniversary this year. 10 years later, we now have 34,800 judges, prosecutors and other judicial personnel from 160 countries engaged with this initiative through mocks, personal courses, workshops or our training of trainers. It is really a game changer in this area because one of the issues is understanding that the investigation of the crime against journalists has particular elements, and it is not the same as investigating other kinds of crimes, which, of course, also should be investigated. Our impunity rate is still absurd - 86% of the total of crimes. Unfortunately, 86% of crimes still go unpunished. When we started the Judges’ Initiative 10 years ago, this number was 95%. It is a drop of 9 percentual points, which, as those studying impunity in crimes in general know, it is not easy to reduce impunity. It does not mean that this is only because of UNESCO’s Judges’ Initiative; there are several things happening, including the work of you guys, academics and journalists and everyone else. But some of this drop is explained due to a more qualified engagement of the judicial operators through these conversations with this topic.

What is your biggest regret in the area of journalists’ safety?

We always regret not having the capacity to do more for the victims. With these trends growing and being distributed everywhere, the families when the journalist is killed, or the journalist when they are not killed, legitimately have an expectation that the United Nations in general and UNESCO particularly could do much more for them, a quicker reaction to try to really solve the impunity. Of course, our capacity is limited. It is very difficult to do more for different reasons. I do regret every time I see a victim, or see a family that is still asking me why we are not doing more. It is very sad not to be able to do more.

Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety, and by whom?

This is an endeavour that should touch everyone in society. It became a mark, a more complex issue in recent years. Many years ago, when we were discussing the safety of journalists, the main perpetrator of the violence against journalists was, for instance, the state as a whole, not a particular politician, but it was the state censoring the media or the authoritarian state against journalism. The current situation is that the perpetrators also become more sophisticated and more plural. We are talking about organized crime. We are talking about illegal mining. We are talking about the human rights violators. We are talking about orchestrated attacks through bots and trolls. The situation has become more complex, and at the same time, in many countries, unfortunately, there are data showing a drop in the trust of society regarding journalists. If I needed to pick one thing that we need to do more, it is to rebuild the trust of society on the importance of journalism as a key pillar of our democracies and the rule of law. If we don't have the buy-in of society in the sense that it is the society pushing their parliamentarians, their governments, their judges, their prosecutors that are attacking journalists, and the attacking of journalism is interfering with individual rights, but it is also interfering with collective rights, we won't be able to deal with the issue. We can do more and more on specific policies, but at the outset, we do need a movement of societies to empower the idea that we need comprehensive policies to tackle these issues.

What could academia contribute to this process of improving journalists’ safety?

Evidence-based policies are crucial, so academia really can do a lot. One thing we have improved a lot in these last many years is monitoring this process - not only UNESCO, but the civil society organizations, and even like-minded governments. There is a richness of data that is underexplored by researchers with the view of suggesting positive changes, including policy-making. Academia can do a lot more with the existing data regarding the safety of journalists. The Observatory of Killings is one set of data, but if you look at the International Coalition of Civil Society organizations dealing with the safety of journalists, those different organizations collect a lot of data. For example, CPJ’s data on journalists in prison, but there are also local datasets. If you look in terms of judicial procedures, there is UNESCO data, also present in the Observatory. You have Columbia University, for instance, collecting this huge database of jurisprudence. Those things could be better assessed; they could be further analysed by an academic lens. That is different from our analysis, which is more short-term in the sense that we need to provide quicker responses. That's not the same timeframe of academic research on a particular topic.

What is your evaluation of the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity? Do any changes need to be made to it?

The overall logic of the plan - the three Ps and the stakeholder logic of the implementation - remains and should be actually strengthened, not changed. That said, the regional and thematic consultations that took place to mark the tenth anniversary of the Plan, provided interesting elements to keep going, things that should be looked into in a more detailed manner that were not necessarily as detailed when we started the Plan 10 years ago. There are several lessons learned that can help us to keep improving this logic, but the logic remains. The important thing is if we don't have comprehensive policies if we don't make sure that we do have prevention, protection, and prosecution, it won't work. You can have a good protection mechanism, but if you miss prevention and prosecution, you will keep recycling the violence. The recommendations we received from the consultations are very useful in terms of looking ahead, not only for UNESCO, but also for all the stakeholders involved with the implementation of the Plan.

Are you interested in collaborating with other people organizations working in this area and on what specific issues?

UNESCO is the overall facilitator and coordinator of the UN Plan on the Issue of Journalists’ Safety. The heart of the plan is actually cooperation and collaboration.  Anything that is related to the implementation of the Plan even if it is not in favour of what we are doing as UNESCO, it is our duty to collaborate and to cooperate. We need to further explore specific ways of doing it.