UN Human Rights Council Adopts Resolution on Journalists’ Safety, Condemns Misuse of Laws to Obstruct Journalists

Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President, UN Human Rights Council
Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger, President, United Nation Human Rights Council

The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) on October 6, 2020 adopted a resolution on the safety of journalists in which it expressed deep concern about the misuse of national laws, policies and practices to hinder or limit the ability of journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.

In the 8-page resolution, A/HRC/45/L.42/Rev.1, introduced by Austria and adopted without a vote (by consensus) by the 47-member UN Human Rights Council at its 45th Regular Session, which began in Geneva, Switzerland, on September 14, 2020, and ended on October 7, 2020, the Council noted that national legal frameworks consistent with States’ international human rights obligations and commitments are an essential condition for a safe and enabling environment for journalists.

The resolution acknowledges the importance of freedom of expression and of free, independent, plural and diverse media, online as well as offline, in building and supporting the functioning of inclusive societies and democracies, an informed citizenry, the rule of law and participation in public affairs, in holding public institutions and officials accountable, including by exposing corruption.

It stressed stressing the importance of access to information to the work of journalists and media workers, adding that they themselves also play a critical role in the enjoyment of this right.

It also underscored the fact that any measure or restriction introduced under emergency measures must be necessary, proportionate to the evaluated risk and applied in a non-discriminatory way, have a specific focus and duration, and be in accordance with the State’s obligations under applicable international human rights law, and that the right to seek, receive and impart information requires that media freedom and the safety of journalists is protected during a state of emergency, including in the context of protests.

The resolution noted that journalists and media workers serve a crucial function in times of crisis and that States must take active measures to ensure that individuals and communities are fully informed about the full scope that any threat poses to their lives and health in order to make appropriate personal choices and decisions.

While recognizing the importance of public trust in and the credibility of journalism, it highlighted the challenges of maintaining media professionalism in an environment where new forms of media are constantly evolving and where targeted disinformation and smear campaigns to discredit the work of journalists are increasing.

The Human Rights Council expressed alarm at instances in which political leaders, public officials and authorities denigrate, intimidate or threaten the media, including individual journalists, saying it increases the risk of threats and violence against journalists and undermines public trust in the credibility of journalism.

It also expressed deep concern about attempts to silence journalists and media workers, including by legislation that can be used to criminalize journalism, by the misuse of overbroad or vague laws to repress legitimate expression, including defamation and libel laws, laws on misinformation and disinformation or counter-terrorism and counter-extremism legislation, when not in conformity with international human rights standards, and by business entities and individuals using strategic lawsuits against public participation to exercise pressure on journalists and stop them from critical or investigative reporting.

The resolution stressed that in the digital age, encryption and anonymity tools have become vital for many journalists to exercise freely their work and their enjoyment of human rights, particularly their rights to freedom of expression and to privacy, including to secure their communications and protect the confidentiality of their sources.

It said impunity for attacks and violence against journalists constitutes one of the greatest challenges to the safety of journalists, adding that ensuring accountability for crimes committed against journalists is a key element in preventing future attacks.  It, therefore “strongly” condemned the prevailing impunity for attacks against journalists, saying it was gravely concerned that the vast majority of such crimes go unpunished, which in turn contributes to the recurrence of the crimes.

The resolution unequivocally condemned all attacks, reprisals and violence against journalists and media workers, such as killings, torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and arbitrary detention, expulsion, intimidation, threats and harassment, online and offline, including through attacks on or the forced closure of their offices and media outlets in both conflict and non-conflict situations.

The resolution called on States to bring their laws, policies and practices fully into compliance with their obligations and commitments under international human rights law, and to review and where necessary repeal or amend them so that they do not limit the ability of journalists and media workers to perform their work independently and without undue interference.

It also called for the establishment of prevention mechanisms, such as an early warning and rapid response mechanism, to give journalists and media workers, when threatened, immediate access to authorities competent and adequately resourced to provide effective protective measures.

The resolution asked States to develop and implement strategies for combating impunity for attacks and violence against journalists, including among others, by creating special investigative units or independent commissions; appointing a specialized prosecutor, and adopting specific protocols and methods of investigation and prosecution.

It called on countries to ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations into all alleged violence, threats and attacks against journalists and media workers falling within their jurisdiction, to bring perpetrators, including those who command, conspire to commit, aid and abet or cover up such crimes to justice, and to ensure that victims and their families have access to appropriate restitution, compensation and assistance.

The resolution urged states to ensure that defamation and libel laws are not misused, particularly through excessive criminal sanctions, to illegitimately or arbitrarily censor journalists and interfere with their mission of informing the public, and where necessary to revise and repeal such laws, in compliance with States’ obligations under international human rights law.

It called for protection in law and in practice for the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, including whistle-blowers, in acknowledgement of the essential role of journalists and those who provide them with information in fostering government accountability and inclusive and peaceful society, subject only to limited and clearly defined exceptions provided for in national legal frameworks, including judicial authorization, in compliance with States’ obligations under international human rights law.

It asked States to cooperate with journalists, the media and civil society organizations to assess the damage that the COVID-19 pandemic is inflicting on the provision of vital information to the public and the sustainability of media environments, and to consider, wherever possible, devising appropriate mechanisms to provide financial support to the media, including local journalism and investigative reporting, and to ensure that support is given without compromising editorial independence.

The Council requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to present to it at its 48th session a report on the impact and repercussions of measures taken by Governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic on the safety and work of journalists and media workers, integrating a gender perspective.

It also asked the High Commission to identify trends and collect good practices, particularly on how the Office of the High Commissioner, within its mandate and working with other relevant United Nations entities, can assist, when requested, in the development of national approaches to protect journalists.