UNESCO: Protecting safety of journalists online and offline in global internet governance ecosystem

5 Dec 2016 17:00h - 19:00h

Event report

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This panel discussed the topics of freedom of the press, construction of solid institutions, and the interplay that exists between the offline and online world.

Mr Guy Berger, UNESCO Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, started the discussion by highlighting the difference between uploading content to social media channels and journalism. He further added that given the challenges and impact caused, journalists who uncovers controversies  may receive threats or face attacks for exposing them. He then presented UNESCO statistics on crime against journalists, pointing to the fact that over 827 journalists have been murdered between 2005 and 2015, with an additional 82 murders so far in the year 2016. He also elaborated on the steps the UN has taken to address these challenges. On a positive note, he highlighted how many countries are setting up mechanisms to address the issues that journalists face with increased alignment between governments, media, NGOs, UN actors and Internet actors.

The risks to journalists have increased multifold. The risks can be mitigated by creating international standards for governments and intermediaries to protect online freedom of expression, emphasising digi-quette for media houses and journalists, and tracking the digital trail of attackers. He invited interested participants to contribute to the work of UNESCO and stay updated with their work by registering for the newsletter.

Mr Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, stressed the need for more conversations to address the most serious threats that journalists face every day. He highlighted the role the Internet has played in extending the concept of freedom of expression, by making it easier and faster to share, edit, post, and criticise through increased access to information. He expressed his concern with journalists self-censoring themselves, fearing threats to their lives from organised criminals.

Mr David Kaye, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion, identified the current social environment created by the government and societies as a facilitator for attacks on journalists. He further criticised governments that criminalise reporters and equate them with terrorists. He then presented the case of Turkey, which has jailed over 150 journalists, accusing them of propagating and glorifying terrorism. He questioned the legitimacy of laws that undermine the rights of individuals, specifically journalists, and restrict them from carrying out their duties. He expressed his concern at more governments passing laws to criminalise encryption and anonymity, leading to increased insecurity among journalists.

Ms Marta Duran, journalist and expert on the national mechanism on the defense of journalists in Mexico, made observations based on the conditions in Mexico. She pointed out the existence of inefficient mechanisms that even though implemented, have done very little to protect journalists on the ground. She then presented details about attacks carried out by state agents and private entities who censor journalists.  In several cases, in addition to being killed, the bodies of journalists are also mutilated, cut, and spread around a city to send a threat to other journalists.

Ms Erika Smith presented details on how the online and offline worlds are  interconnected, and how online threats can quickly translate into offline attacks. She further highlighted the severity of occurrences of women facing online violence which are not always taken seriously, and are many times dismissed without further investigation. 

Mr Kim Pham, Deputy Program Director, IREX, presented details on how her organisation is addressing the issue of safety of journalists while mechanisms for keeping them safe are being worked out. She stressed the need to address the psychosocial issues that journalists face.

The panel agreed that working as a journalist is dangerous and hence, understanding how the Internet works and what happens on the Internet is key to using it effectively. Smith concluded saying that the tools that should protect are being used to harm people who are trying to keep us informed.  The panel agreed that access to information is a right which needs to be protected and also on the need to demand that authorities defend and protect journalists.

by Krishna Kumar, Internet Society India – Chennai Chapter