Lack of security for journalists and the problem with impunity


Talk at the launch of the report “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and media Development. Global Report 2017/2018”. Presented on March 14 2018 at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

By Rune Ottosen

Honorable Dean officials, guests and participants. Many thanks for inviting me to talk at this important event. I guess I have a double role here both as a member of the Norwegian UNESCO-commission and as Professor and researcher at the co-hosting institution of the event, Department of Journalism and Media Studies: International Center at OsloMet. I am highly inspired by teaching master students at Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere this week. I have also followed the process of publishing this report inside the UNESCO-system. I took part in the important conference in Geneve in June 2017, discussing UNESCO’s leadership in the implementation of the UN plan of action on safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. This process started with when UNESCO in April 2012 adopted UN Action Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. The conference in Geneve in June 2017 lead to 30 forward-looking options for action to be considered by the UN, Member States, regional intergovernmental organizations, civil society, media actors, internet intermediaries and academia.  I have also learnt a lot taking part in the sometimes heated debate about these recommandations to the UNESCO general conference in Paris in November 2017. Unesco has through this process taken steps towards the formalisation of a system of focal points for the safety of journalists within relevant United Nations entities. But the report presented here today is a living proof that there is a lot to be done.

Between 2012 and 2016, 530 journalists were killed, an average of two deaths per week. We learn from the report that although the killings of foreign correspondents tend to garner international publicity, it is overwhelmingly local journalists who are killed while reporting on local expressions of war, corruption or the activities of criminal groups. This trend holds across all regions. Political groups, military officials, insurgent groups, militias and criminal organizations have directly targeted and sought to silence the voices of journalists. In 2013, the UN General Assembly declared 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, which is increasingly observed across the world.

Continuing on earlier trends, there has also been a substantial rise in other forms of violence against journalists, including in kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture Digital safety is an increasing concern for journalists across all regions, with threats posed by intimidation and harassment, disinformation and smear campaigns, website defacement and technical attacks, as well as arbitrary surveillance. Women journalists, in particular, have experienced increasing online abuse, stalking and harassment.

The issue of impunity is of course that most grave part of this situation when we know that according to IFEX 9 out of 10 violent crimes against journalist are never prosecuted. There is no doubt that violence against journalist will continue as long as the perpetrators get away with violent crimes against journalist. Within the framework of its Research Agenda on the Safety of Journalists, UNESCO will pursue partnerships for new academic research on emerging issues regarding the safety of journalists, taking into account its digital dimensions, as well as on gender-specific threats. These specific areas, as well as an analysis of trends in physical violence against journalists and impunity, will continue

Research done by Professor Jackie Harrison, University of Sheffield shows the dramatic consequence of impunity. In short Harrisons conclusion is that journalists are subject to increased physical and psychological attacks, harassment, threats, smear campaigns, arbitrary detentions, deprivation of liberty and kidnapping.  Journalists must also live with threats to family, undue political pressure, censorship, false lawsuits and corrupt trials. Legal mechanisms are created to suppress journalist. anti-terrorism legislation is used to falsely charge and sentence journalist. Another problem is implementation laws with restriction of journalism and freedom of expression. Journalists receive – insults and are  spied upon. Reporters are subject to blackmail and get offers of briebs. Media companies are being  closed down for political reasons

Advertising revenues are in some cases stopped because of pressure from governments and crminals.


In the report Journalism under Pressure: “A mapping of editorial policies and practices for journalists covering conflict”, edited by myself and my Ph.d student Marte Høiby we have found many of the same tendencies mentioned above. With the help of research assistant in seven countries we have interviewed more than 100 journalists and editors. Through semi-structured interviews we show how the harassment have consequenses for every day life and work among journalists. Uganda  and Norway are among the seven coutries investigated. I want to use the opportunity to tank Vivian Ninsiima for her important contribution to our report.

By the way Uganda was listed as number 112 among 180 countries included in the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index published recently Uganda was listed 104  in 2013 and 110 in 2016. So the press freedom in Uganda is under pressure and moves in the wrong direction. There are rooms for improvements in this country. Although Uganda has not experienced armed conflict in over 15 years and the conflicts that journalists engage in are of a political nature. Uganda is growing less safe for journalists in general, and conflict reporters specifically. This is evident from the repressive laws and the other hindrances and restrictions imposed on journalists and the media at large. Civil society and human rights organisations are working to ensure that the freedom of the press and expression is realised in Uganda and that journalists’ rights are protected and their safety assured.

38 of 71 journalists in our total sample experience posttraumatic stress, sleeping problems, jumpiness, (loud bangs, when the phone rings, someone knocks the door), anxiety (for being followed, conspiracies), problems with relationships/family, loneliness, lost social life. A majority of the journalists interviewed report experiencing direct threats in relation to their work during the past five years. Only 11 out of the 73 journalists reported not having been exposed to direct threats during the five past years, and all but two of them reported significantly less experience as a journalist or less experience in covering conflict. Journalists from the Philippines came out as considerably more threatened than any of the others, whereas Uganda and Nigeria reported slightly higher levels of threat than the rest.  I want to draw the attention to the chapter about freelancers in our report. As explained by an international freelancer based in the Middle East: ‘The local freelancers suffer the most; they take the highest risks, they are untrained and unequipped, they barely get paid, and they don’t even get the bylines.’ When they also are young and inexperienced this combination can constitute a death trap. Some informants told stories of local freelancers who started out as ‘fixers’ and ended up selling their stories to big international news houses, a few reportedly ending up being contracted. While these cases are probably exceptions to the rule, they show that there are opportunities for those willing to take the risk – for as long as they manage to survive. It was summed up by one of the fully-employed international correspondents: ‘If you find yourself next to a freelancer [in the field], you know that you have gone too far.’ Although covering local conflict in the provinces appears to be among the most dangerous assignments for a reporter, one can also ask whether the risk differs between women journalists and their male counterparts. Most of the threats to women, according to male and female informants, consist of sexual harassment and verbal threats, abduction, rape and capture into forced ‘marriage’, especially when covering local conflict in provincial areas. Several mentioned the risk of not being let out again if entering a camp or area under the control of certain insurgency groups. Kidnapping, rape and violence is of regular concern for women journalists at work.

Gender considerations and macho culture in the newsroom or the journalists’ social environment, and its impact on career liability and the competition for assignments are other issues that could benefit from more research. This study shows that women journalists face different threats than men – something that affects their risk assessment and preparation to work in conflict zones. The study recommends that gender perspectives of risk are taken into consideration for the development of security training, although the details remain to be better understood. Furthermore, the gender categorizing of individuals and the challenges it poses in the field of conflict reporting have so far not received substantial attention. But the good news is that it helps to do these campaigns that we are part of today Committee to protect journalists (CPJ)after many years of campaigning recently broke the news that  Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, was freed from jail recently. We must continue without stop the important work getting imprisoned journalists released. Another good news is that willingness to cooperate to fight the impunity problem and harassment among journalists. In the report presented here UNESCO notes with satisfaction that there is increased willingness among countries to cooperate on protection of rights of journalists. 74  percent of the member states responded when asked to provide specific information on the status of judicial investigation of killed journalists.  But a lot more has to be done inside and outside the UNESCO-system.

Thank you for your attention


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