a vital humanitarian concern
When a journalist is killed in the line
of duty, society as a whole is under threat. These deaths
not only silence the journalist but also intimidate others
into self-censorship. In this sense, freedom of expression
(and with that, access to information) is a ‘meta right’ — a
right on which the realization of many other rights depend.
It is a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, accountability
and society’s ability to make informed decisions.
During times of conflict, violent political unrest or natural
disaster, the lives of journalists deserve special protection,
not only because they perform heroic acts in the face of
danger — although that is often the case — but
due to the important social role they play. The alternative
is a world driven by ignorance, rumour and ungrounded assumptions.
But journalism is a heavily contested domain and media professionals
often find themselves in vulnerable positions, under threat
from states and non-state actors alike. During the last two
decades, around 1,000 journalists have been killed in the
line of duty with a large number of deaths in just the last
While the tragic deaths of foreign correspondents caught
in the crossfire often make headlines, two-thirds of journalists
are killed outside armed conflict. The majority are freelancers,
working for a local newspaper or radio. The greatest peril
is murder, not accidents, and a large percentage of journalists
who are killed have received threats. Murder is the most
extreme form of censorship and, in countries where the risks
are highest, there is a pattern of impunity.
One way to reduce the danger is to ‘elevate the issue’ — to
take it from the local to higher levels. National leaders
should, for example, strongly condemn killings of journalists.
Investigation and prosecution could occur at the national
as opposed to the local level (thus making political interference
less likely). Local journalists must link with their international
colleagues, and journalistic organizations and civil society
groups could demand greater attention from regional and international
bodies provided under international human rights law.
Do we need a new treaty to protect journalists? In my view
the current international legal framework is probably adequate
in terms of the norms that it recognizes. The challenge lies
in implementing the laws that already exist. Declarations
or other similar instruments at United Nations and regional
levels may help to elevate the issue and increase global
Humanitarian organizations also play an important role.
The ICRC’s hotline for journalists — along with
training in safety, first aid and humanitarian law provided
by the ICRC and National Societies — are good examples
of what humanitarian organizations can do. But humanitarian
actors can do more by advocating for the role of journalists
in natural disasters and armed violence to ensure transparency,
accountability and public awareness.
States and society at large should not merely be told that
journalists need protection. They need to better appreciate
the media’s role in situations of catastrophe and conflict
so that we all can better understand our world, help prevent
conflict, diminish the impact of natural disasters and make
informed decisions — especially when the stakes are
By Christof Heyns
Christof Heyns is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on
extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. He is also
a professor of law and co-director of the Institute for
International and Comparative Law in Africa at the University
of Pretoria, South Africa. To read his full report to the
UN Human Rights Council on the protection of journalists,
please see A/HRC/20/22 on www.ohchr.org.
Christof Heyns Photo: ©UNOCHA
Murder is the
in countries where
is a pattern
How to protect journalists?
Is it time for a new inter-national treaty? Or just
better compliance with the laws already on the books?
Read different points of view at: