DCMF speech to the IPDC, by Ole Chavannes.
March 22, 2012.
The Arab Region is the most dangerous place for journalists in 2012 until now, largely due to Syria. Every day the Doha Centre for Media Freedom monitors, reports and condemns the violations of rights of journalists and media activists around the world, but especially in the Middle-East. We fully agree journalism safety and stopping impunity are amongst the main conditions for creating an environment to practice free and fair reporting.
The facts and its analysis, as presented in the Director-Generals’ report on The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity and the UN Plan of Action for Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity are entirely shared and supported by the Doha Centre. Our mission is to raise awareness on press freedom violations, support prevention and protection of journalists and built partnerships to promote media freedom.
Let me share not more data, but some useful examples from our region about awareness, prevention and partnerships. Examples that show the complexity of the many country specific situations, from Libya, Syria and Egypt. And let me share our ideas on possible solutions, on different levels, to improve safety and reduce impunity.
Our expert based in Tripoli reports that media in Libya has very limited knowledge on what professional journalism is about, yet there is a strong eagerness to learn. After 42 years of Gaddafi rule that is totally understandable. Balanced reporting, ethical standards, at least two sides of the story are all basic lessons yet to be learned. In post-revolution Libya, journalists already receive threats again, after publishing stories on chaotic politics or human rights violations. Critical voices are being told not to ‘be an enemy of the revolution‘. What is needed is a long term international commitment for broad based and outspoken support to build democratic institutions, including a legal framework that guarantees protection of journalists.
The situation in Syria is completely different. For us as a media freedom organization, it is very difficult to help journalists and media activists inside the country, that are a target themselves. Ordinary -untrained- people just film what they see: the images we have all seen on the news channels and online, thanks to their courage and smart phones. Last week Al Jazeera broadcasted the first documentary about Syria, entirely filmed by iphone. We can support newly initiated collectives of citizen reporters based around Syria with safety training, but clearly it is not enough. Syria accounts for the highest death toll of journalists of any country swept by the Arab Spring.
Egypt is in a crucial transitional phase, in which it can still go both ways for media freedom. The newly elected parliament could develop a legal framework that meets international standards that allows a vibrant self-regulatory media landscape, or it could fall back on old habits of repression and censorship. Our own experience is that new politicians, including members of the Freedom and Justice Party and al Noor, are very open to learn. Often they acknowledge their limited experience, while we also notice a tendency among many Western civil society groups and politicians, to give up, since it ‘can’t go right with such a majority of votes for Islam’. We don’t believe any religious affiliation has anything to do with support for quality media and press freedom, and thus it is our suggestion to give it a try: the moment is now.
This brings me to some possible solutions I would like to contribute to the debate to reach a common comprehensive plan of action to address safety of journalists and to end impunity.
Acknowledging the fact that killed journalists are mainly local journalists and that in nearly 90% of the killings no prosecution takes place, civil society organizations like ours, but also member states and intergovernmental organizations have the duty to address and to press for justice. On top of that all must be aware most murders are not committed during war-situations. Insufficient public pressure - the attention of the global community - enables the ones responsible not to prosecute perpetrators.
Much more awareness raising is required and social media is helping a great deal. Never before so many individuals could not only consume, but also react and act on news. The interconnectivity is being the catalyst of the Arab spring. As envisioned in the Director-Generals’ report, there needs to be much better cooperation between governments, intergovernmental organizations and civil society. We all should ‘follow’ each other, share and discuss, engage with anybody online. This will strengthen the public pressure to stop violations of journalistic rights, wherever.
Besides public pressure, new techniques are available to enhance the safety of journalists and netizens. First aid apps and real time GPS tracking devices, for journalists at risk, will improve the safety system and thus make emergency aid, if something goes wrong, much more effective. Also awareness among potential perpetrators about this global monitoring system will have a preventive effect. The only requirements are funding and sharing of knowledge.
Another suggestion is global support for implementation of the so called ‘Arizona project’. Based on a media rights mechanism, first enrolled in Arizona, journalists under threat should not necessarily be helped to flee the country, but a dozen of other (regional) journalists should be flown in, to also cover the news topic that caused the threats. It is a simple idea that only requires extra funding. It will not only raise awareness about an important journalistic subject, but also has a preventive impact: whoever threatened the reporter, will think twice the next time independent news is produced.
The measures implemented by IPDC to reduce impunity by requesting member states to report on individual cases, as described in the report, are promising. This policy could generate even more effect, if (unconventional) partnerships between politicians, legal professionals and human rights experts are being catered. Workshops on international law standards, on both legal as political level, with all stakeholders, will help stop impunity.
Finally, safety of journalists is also a responsibility of journalists and media companies themselves. The most effective is extensive reporting about violations of press freedom. Amongst media in the Middle-East standard safety training for their reporters and media-workers is still rare. Unfortunately the unprecedented amount of casualties in the region in 2011, made several media organizations realise their safety policy need to be improved drastically. In Qatar, Al Jazeera (both the English and Arabic channels) has launched recently a new safety program for all their journalists and media-workers. Al Arabiya is planning to implement the same.
Safety is not just practicing ‘worst case scenarios’, but also implementing strict safety protocols, digital protection, insurances and emergency mechanisms. This knowledge must be shared more actively, to begin with as open source documents and instruction videos available online. This way media companies and media freedom organizations can not only set a new standard for safety for all journalists, also freelancers, but also for all those people who happen to be able to record and share news and are willing to take the risk to show the world what is really going on in their country.
It is this free flow of information that is the necessary precondition for all forms of development, social and economic. It is the basis of free societies and a democratic and prosperous world. Threats to journalists, murder and impunity as such hinder progress on a global scale.
Ole Chavannes is Senior Coordinator Emergency Assistance of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. For questions or reactions email firstname.lastname@example.org