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Interview with Rachael Kay, IFEX Executive Director

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

I am the Executive Director of IFEX, the global network of more than 100 civil society organisations defending and promoting freedom of expression and information worldwide. I started working with IFEX over 20 years ago, precisely because of the network’s focus on journalists’ safety issues.

In these two decades with IFEX I’ve had the privilege of working with members and the network as a whole on many campaigns and advocacy actions for the safety of journalists. Of these, I would perhaps highlight the No Impunity campaign, as a key milestone. It was first launched in November 2011 after the network identified the issue of impunity as one of the biggest threats to journalists’ safety worldwide.

How do you define journalists’ safety?

For IFEX, this means that individuals working in a journalistic capacity are able to carry out the public function of reporting on critical issues in a safe and enabling environment, free of the threat of intimidation, arrest or other forms of reprisal. This involves a holistic approach with the creation of safe conditions through relevant legal, physical, digital and psychosocial protections and support, as well as ensuring there is justice and accountability for perpetrators and masterminds when journalists are attacked.

The network’s approach to the concept of journalist safety also takes into account aspects related to equity and inclusion, such as promoting gender-responsive policies and analysis throughout the cycle of the prevention, protection and prosecution of crimes against journalists.

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

In recent years, the IFEX network has urgently noted an increase in the frequency and types of attacks faced by journalists and media workers globally. Growing digital threats, geopolitical and environmental conflicts and crises, and the proliferation of populism and other extreme ideologies have multiplied the threats to the safety of journalists, with women and those in vulnerable contexts facing unique and disproportionate impacts. The rate of impunity for such attacks remains unacceptably high, with approximately 9 out of 10 cases still going unpunished, and the masterminds of such attacks rarely held accountable.

In this context, one of the specific threats that IFEX members have identified and are working hard to counter are legal pressures, including so-called strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), as well as restrictive libel and defamation, counter-terrorism, cybercrime, mis/disinformation and other laws, increasingly being used to silence journalists and media organisations. Legal and legislative threats can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression and investigative journalism.

Journalists are also facing various forms of intimidation, harassment and stigmatisation by politicians, their supporters and other private actors through labels painting them as "enemies of the state", with unfounded accusations of biased or false reporting, or other tactics meant to discredit them and their work. This not only undermines the profession but can also provoke hostility and violence against media professionals. Unfortunately, campaigns against journalists, including smear campaigns and online harassment, are increasingly common and can become real dangers for those working in the field. For women and other marginalised groups, these threats can be especially personal and take on other forms of sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic attacks.

It is particularly alarming that this violence and stigmatisation of journalists intensifies during election periods, and that attacks on journalists in these contexts are generally perpetrated by law enforcement officials. Once again, election-related violence against journalists has a disproportionate impact on women journalists, who are more likely to be harassed and targeted for reporting on political issues. These attacks on journalists also have a direct impact on the future governance of the country in which they occur, as healthy democracies and transparent elections are only possible if journalists are allowed to do their work and citizens are properly informed.

The rapid expansion of digital technologies, including AI and machine learning, has also created new or elevated risks of targeting journalists if not reined in. The potential for monitoring and surveillance, targeted cyberattacks, and online blocking and censorship, are all significantly magnified. These challenges will become increasingly urgent as technologies further proliferate.

All of these threats are part of a broader phenomenon that IFEX has long been warning about: the increasing closure of civic space. When civil society groups and independent journalism face restrictions and repression as part of this closure, it limits the ability of journalists to report freely and can put their safety at risk. In turn, the loss of timely and vital information threatens the health and vibrancy of the space for civic engagement. Therefore, the issue of journalist safety should also be viewed within this lens.

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

I am only one part of a huge network of organisations and activists, so I think it is important I talk about collective achievements rather than personal ones. The incredible work on the safety and well-being of journalists being carried out by various organisations that are part of IFEX is long, intense and deep. In the 30 years of IFEX's existence, there have been many successes and many, many challenges.

As a testament to the network's long-term vision, there are numerous instances of collective achievement. I would like to share with you one that serves as an illustration of the kind of accomplishments that we as a network are particularly proud of: the long campaign on the case of Jineth Bedoya.

Jineth is a Colombian investigative journalist who, on 25 May 2000, while following a lead on alleged arms sales between paramilitaries and Colombian state officials in a maximum-security prison, was kidnapped, tortured, and sexually abused in retaliation for her journalistic work.

Since this terrible attack, IFEX has worked to support the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), a Colombian member, in escalating the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Human Rights Court. After years of advocacy, the Court ordered the Colombian State to provide a series of reparations including compensation, implementing effective policy and systemic measures to protect women journalists, and establishing an awareness-raising programme on the issue of gender-based violence as inspired by Bedoya’s campaign, “No es hora de callar”.

This is the first decision by an international human rights court that analyzes the use of sexual violence as a method of silencing a woman journalist, and sets a precedent in following international human rights standards to protect women journalists who have been victims of sexual violence.

IFEX is still working with FLIP and Jineth to maintain pressure on the Colombian state to comply with its obligations under the Court's ruling.

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

Rather than regret, it is a sense of disappointment at the failure of states and the UN to fully act on their international pledges and commitments, including in such high-profile cases as the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

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

Of course! There is always more to do, and in the current critical context, it is urgent that more be done.

Civil society organisations have been doing an incredible job protecting journalists around the world, even undertaking work that is the responsibility of states. However, states have merely endorsed declarations and plans without translating them into concrete actions.

Political will to comply with international obligations regarding the safety of journalists is lacking. On the contrary, in several countries, state actors are the main perpetrators of attacks or aggressions against journalists.

It is also a challenging moment for journalists, as many tools that civil society has used to advocate for a free and enabling environment for years are not currently effective. The same is happening with multilateral and human rights bodies, where states are not complying with recommendations or are actively trying to co-opt or undermine human rights mechanisms and protections. 

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

Professors and researchers are some of the greatest allies of civil society organisations in defending the work of journalists.

Universities and research centres contribute by collecting and analysing data, as well as producing reports and articles that help us understand the context and evolution of journalists' safety in different parts of the world. These publications have a dual function, both educational or informational and awareness-raising.

Additionally, more and more universities around the world are including specific workshops or classes on cybersecurity and other tools necessary to improve journalists' safety in their curricula. Such activities have a clear and direct impact on life and death situations for journalists.

We hope to see an increasingly close collaboration between academia and civil society organisations on initiatives to improve journalists' safety in the future.

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?

There have been successes, but the harsh reality is that too often in the last decade, states have not followed through on what they signed up for, and the UN has not always been able to persuade them to honour their commitments.

In the last 10 years, civil society has had to intervene countless times to protect journalists, combat impunity, and prevent states from violating the rights to freedom of expression, privacy, and access to information.

Last year, IFEX members and partners worked on a Call to Action to States that included a series of concrete, strategic, and implementable recommendations to improve the Plan. Some of those recommendations included addressing gender-based attacks against journalists, strengthening support for monitoring attacks, bolstering national safety mechanisms, tackling impunity for crimes against journalists and making the UN Plan more effective.

It is definitely recommended reading for anyone interested in the safety of journalists!

Are you interested in collaborating with other people/organisations working in this area and if yes, on what specific issues?


The IFEX network fosters authentic collaboration for effective and transformative advocacy by connecting members and allies through issues, campaigns, joint actions and convenings. I mentioned two examples above of effective and long-term collaborative work: the Jineth Bedoya case and the No Impunity campaign.

In terms of issues, we are open to collaborating on many different projects related to the safety of journalists. Collaboration is an essential part of IFEX’s work and essential to its continued evolution and success.