Tell us a bit about yourself and how you first started working on the issue of journalists’ safety.
I joined UNESCO from academia in 2011, just months after the organization had been mandated by a multi-stakeholder conference to draft the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. It became my privilege to work with Silvia Chacorro on the draft and later to shepherd the Plan through to winning the endorsement of the Chief Executive Board of the UN’s funds, agencies and programmes in 2012. Over the years, it was my job to lead UNESCO’s work under the auspices of the UN Plan in terms of rolling out norms, standards, projects, research and reporting to UNESCO Member States, as well as building global alliances on the topic.
How do you define journalists’ safety?
UNESCO and the UN Plan of Action took on a broad definition. The value of this is that it allows for some flexibility in terms of dealing with the changing nature of attacks over time, like gendered disinformation. It is also a politically inclusive approach because it enables different actors to focus on different parts of the spectrum. Some governments resist press freedom but will respond on their responsibility to deal with the most minimal level of safety (i.e. journalists should not be assassinated). A few governments are willing to focus on issues like addressing concerns about algorithmic fuelling online pile-ons and the problems of surveillance. In between, there are countries that recognize concerns about SLAPPs, “fake news laws,” and arbitrary arrests and call out their peers in regard to these measures.
Fundamentally, safety is about the right to do journalism as part of the exercise of freedom of expression, but it is not quite coterminous with press freedom. There are countries with press freedom where journalists are not safe and countries with little press freedom yet where journalists are not victims of violent threats. And, there are, sadly, countries where journalists experience neither press freedom nor safety! Unfortunately, it is hard to identify any countries that have full enjoyment of both press freedom and safety, although, of course, there is far from an equivalence between countries in the degrees to which these are operational.
Which threats do you perceive as being the biggest ones to journalists’ safety today?
Continuing impunity for crimes against journalists. Even the worst crime – taking the life of a journalist - still goes unpunished in most cases today. Admittedly, in some cases, it is hard for a weak state to resolve these kinds of attacks. But in many, many instances, the high rate of impunity is also a function of a lack of political will and appropriate allocation of budget and personnel.
At the same time, it is evident that securing justice for journalists – either through effective protection or prosecution of assailants – is not only an issue for the state. The big internet companies are also failing to adequately address online attacks via their platforms. They ought to be using big data analysis (alongside other mechanisms) to predict and pre-empt mounting attacks and to take proportionate action to block and deplatform the attackers.
What would you say is your greatest personal achievement in the area of journalists’ safety?
Before retiring from UNESCO in mid-2022, I was overjoyed to see so many constituencies organizing on the safety of journalists. NGOs formed a joint coalition, with many actions – including support for journalists in distress; researchers formed a network. The UN agencies similarly set up focal points across their organizations, while diplomats created Groups of Friends for the Safety of Journalists in New York, Vienna, Geneva and Paris. Donors came to the table with resources earmarked for training, monitoring and protection. In some cases, all this translated into institutional mechanisms being set up, which ultimately is the only way for the problems to be addressed systematically and sustainably.
What is your biggest regret in the area of journalists’ safety?
There has not been full advantage taken of the 2 November, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. I was personally involved in the development of this occasion which was adopted by the UN in 2013, and oversaw the subsequent annual commemorations by UNESCO. However, this event has a way to go to reach the level of consciousness and impact of World Press Freedom Day, especially at the country level, where it could be a time to make advances. Further, each year UNESCO discloses which states have not responded to requests for information on the judicial process following the murder of a journalist. This is powerful data which can be used at country level to demand more accountability from governments and their cooperation with an agreed international process. In the same manner, the Voluntary National Reviews under the SDGs, and the Universal Periodic Review reports, are missed opportunities to get safety on the governments’ and public’s agendas.
Is there something more that could be done for journalists’ safety, and by whom?
The mainstream media is weakened these days, but that does not excuse the sector’s relatively low level of contributions at all levels – enterprise-level policies and spending, industry-wide solidarity, and public advocacy. After Elon Musk bought Twitter, the supposed “free speech” advocate banned some critical journalists. He then endorsed trolling attacks in a way that triggered additional abuse against the BBC’s Marianna Spring. This person was able to do all this with impunity from the media industry, which saw other journalists staying on the service, which simply legitimized his actions. In particular, the BBC was silent on the Marianna Spring issue, and a subsequent BBC interview with Musk failed to even raise the issue. Expectations of digital platforms are not exactly high, to say the least, but when media actors themselves don’t forward, we have a serious problem. Journalists and the public have to insist with their management to take a stand. This is one story that the media cannot be neutral about.
What could academia contribute to the process of improving journalists’ safety?
Knowledge, combined with awareness-raising, is the best contribution, followed by training. With the longer view that academics can take, trends can be uncovered and correlations established. Foresight can be enhanced. UNESCO’s 2015 research agenda for safety, which I co-developed, is still a valuable source of inspiration, in my opinion. Research findings can not only encourage and guide actions but can also be used to shame those who are failing journalists in the area of safety.
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?
In the UN, it is always a political question as to whether the agreed document should be reopened or not since doing so may open the possibility for reversals. Therefore, the general approach is to build upon and supplement what exists. In this case, a reading of the UN Plan shows it to still be remarkably fresh. However, it perhaps erred in ambition – for example, in encouraging (with just limited success) the naming of public spaces to promote journalism. But this should call for closer reflection about how the ideas in the Plan can be prioritized in a given country – even if all of them carry potential value.
Are you interested in collaborating with other people/organisations working in this area, and if yes, on what specific issues?
The issue of getting access to data in platforms relevant to the safety of journalists is critical. On the one hand, there is momentum in some places that improves these prospects, but on the other, we see platforms limiting their APIs and butchering what they call “trust and safety” personnel. But specific projects could perhaps unlock some access if the companies see this as helping them do better on the controversial topic of actions to counter online attacks against journalists. I began work on these topics while still with UNESCO, and I am interested in continuing to cooperate in this regard. One example, perhaps, could be about the online safety of journalists in a specific upcoming African election and linking this to the need for platform companies to do proper human rights risk assessment work.
Anything else you would like to share with us?
The world is not getting safer for journalists. We can’t say if the UN Plan has at least kept things from being even worse, but we have some evidence of small successes. However, each concerned person has to try and push back against the escalating free-for-all against journalists. Already journalism is already under siege from economic pressures and has often lost the support of public opinion in many countries. Actions are needed on several fronts – but safety has to be one of them, and academics should be among those supporting the frontline defenders.