UNESCO Issues Publication for Law Enforcement Agents to Strengthen Investigations into Crimes Against Journalists

Audrey Azoulay
Director general of the UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has issued a new report for law enforcement agents on how to strengthen investigations into crimes against journalists

Titled “The role of law enforcement agents: Strengthening Investigations into crimes against journalists”, the publication was produced with the support of the Government of The Netherlands through UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Multi-Donor Programme (MDP) on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.  It was released in September 2023.

The publication was motivated by the high rate of impunity for crimes against journalists, which according to UNESCO, impacts on press freedom and access to information for all citizens.

According to UNESCO, “The murder of a journalist as a result of their work, is an extreme form of censorship. Between 2006 and 2021, 1,284 journalists were killed as a result of their work. More than 60 percent of the killings occurred in countries with no armed conflict. Nine out of ten cases of killings of journalists around the world remain judicially unresolved.”

In the publication, UNESCO noted that law enforcement agents, the judiciary and prosecutors have an important role in protecting journalists against attacks by those who seek to prevent them from doing their work and in reinforcing prevention: of crimes against journalists; protection: of journalists who are intimidated or threatened; and prosecution: of those perpetrating crimes against journalists.

It said: “Because victimisation of journalists is potentially related to their work, and because their work is important to society, investigators must ensure that they operate independent of political influence, and all investigative steps are taken to ensure the investigation obtains justice as a deterrent to others and to give strong reassurance to the wider public.”|

UNESCO noted that high levels of impunity for crimes committed against journalists are caused, among other factors, by the lack of impartial, efficient and effective investigations into such cases and provides recommendations and good practices for law enforcement agents in order to improve the quality of investigations into cases of crimes and attacks against journalists and therefore, reduce the global impunity rate.

It underscored the need for independence in investigations into crimes against journalists, saying that there are two aspects to independence of investigations and investigators should seek to emphasise both, namely visible independence and actual independence.

According to UNESCO, “visible independence requires investigators to make arrangements for work that creates an outward appearance of independence. This may include opening separate office accommodation and perhaps bringing in investigators from another region. Actual independence builds on the notion of visibility by creating the conditions for full independence from any individual or public body implicated in the crime.”

It identified a number of international legal instruments that are designed to support freedom of expression, and the ability of journalists to exercise that right in the course of their work, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Geneva Conventions; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; a 2005 United Nations Commission on Human Rights Resolution, 2005/81; the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1738 of 2006; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979..

UNESCO said guidelines for independent and effective investigation of crimes against journalists have been widely set out through work by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe (CoE) and that the guidelines provide a practical framework for investigators, law enforcement organisations and state-level policy makers alike.

They include the following:

·         Investigating officers and their agencies should be independent of any individual or organization implicated in the crime. When there are credible allegations of the involvement of State agents, the investigation should be carried out by an authority outside of the jurisdiction or sphere of influence of those authorities, and the investigators should be able to explore all allegations fully.

·         Effectiveness requires establishing a connection between an offender’s motive and the journalist’s work early on and looking to hold those who incite and plan the violence, as well as direct perpetrators, accountable.

·         Officers assigned to investigations into crimes against journalists should understand the need to quickly preserve digital evidence as well as physical evidence.

·         Victims, or in case of death, abduction or disappearance, the next of kin, should be provided with regular updates on progress. In some countries, investigators appoint an officer (a Family Liaison Officer) whose role is to support the victim’s family throughout.

·         Where the victim is reluctant to provide a statement (for fear of reprisals) investigators should explore the potential for proceeding without the victim’s cooperation.

·         Good practice in many countries is that there is robust support for witnesses from law enforcement organisations and external, charitable agencies. Support offered includes witness protection programmes in which vulnerable witnesses are given new identities, being able to give evidence in court by video link, or from behind a screen.

·         Authorities must consider the impact of the crime and investigation on the victim, next of kin and family. “Member States must ensure that effective and appropriate remedies are available to victims and, as relevant, to their families, including legal remedies, financial compensation, medical and psychological treatment, relocation and shelter. Remedies should take due account of cultural, ethnic, religious, gender-related and other aspects.