Hannes Richter

Austria's Efforts to Protect Journalists

Hannes Richter


In September Maria Elizabeth Macías Castro was found decapitated on a road outside the city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. A note placed on her body stated that she was killed because of her reporting on social media platforms. Luis Emanuel Ruiz Carrillo was discovered fatally wounded on the streets of Monterrey after his abduction the night before with José Luis Cerda Meléndez, an entertainment show host.

In Yemen Jamal al-Sharaabi, a photojournalist, and Hassan al-Wadhaf, a cameraman for the Arabic Media Agency, were shot while covering anti-government protests. The cameraman was killed by a sniper who was suspected of working for the government. Ferzat Jarban und Basil al-Sayed, two Syrian videographers who covered political unrest, were killed.

Jarban was found dead after his arrest by government forces and al-Sayed was shot in Homs while filming in December. Seventeen year old Anas al-Tarsha, a videographer, who regularly covered the violence against the people of Homs, was also shot. These are but a few examples of violence against journalists, cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists for the year of 2011.

The outlook for today’s journalists who cover critical issues such as organized crime, drug trafficking, human rights violations or corruption is not encouraging: the number of attacks against them has drastically increased in the last years. According to the International Press Institute (IPI), 900 reporters have been killed while on duty since 2000, already 90 have lost their lives in 2012.

Even more concerning is that 81% of those victims were killed through attacks that were specifically targeted against them, according to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the  Journalists who cover critical issues often put their lives on the line. The Austrian government will not stand for this. Alongside efforts within OSCE and UNESCO to improve this situation, Austria has made greater security for journalists a priority during its membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council 2011-2014.

“We are all aware of the important role played by brave journalists and reporters during the democracy movements that took place in recent months. Several of themsacrificed their lives for the struggle. Thus, this reinforces our decision to have chosen the protection of journalists as one of the priorities of our membership in the Human Rights Council,” Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger announced on the International Human Rights Day last December.

Austria intends to introduce a substantial resolution in the Human Rights Council, which will strengthen the international fight against violence targeted at journalists. In its initiative, Austria will focus on the prevention of future attacks as the most effective way to battle violence against journalists. The most important aspect being addressed is the highly problematic issue of impunity, which is one of the biggest obstacles in the efforts to provide journalists with more security. Alarmingly, statistics show that in 94% of the cases, offenders are not brought to justice.

In Iraq, for example, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, not a single one of the 92 cases in which journalist were murdered in the last ten years was resolved.Making sure that perpetrators are held responsible for their actions would send a strong signal to potential offenders. Austria’s first step in the development of the U.N. resolution Ausrtria organize, together with the International Press Institute, a meeting of highly qualified experts in Vienna on November 23, 2011, the International Day to End Impunity.

Government representatives, civil society stakeholders, and representatives of international organizations from17 countries were invited to discuss the legal framework guiding the protection of journalists and its implementation on a national level. Measures against impunity, possible preventive methods, and the sharing of best practice examples were also at the foremost of the discussion. The goal of finding operational recommendations to improve the safety of journalists was successfully achieved.

The recommendations will now be implemented in activities within the framework of the Human Rights Council and the U.N.. Participants underlined the fact that targeted attacks against journalists are especially despicable, since the right to freedom of opinion and expression is an important part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Attacks on this freedom can be viewed as a direct assault on democracy.

The experts agreed that in most cases journalists were attacked in order to prevent the distribution of information of public interest. In the case of Syria, for example, it is very probable that the government is seeking to prevent the extent of its cruelty vis-à-vis the Syrian people from being disclosed. “Those who kill and physically assault journalists, or arbitrarily send them to prison have one goal,” Foreign Minister Spindelegger affirmed, “to silence the messenger and intimidate other journalists. They seek to ruthlessly censor and promote self-censorship. They constitute the world’s gravest threat to press freedom.”

The high number of attacks linked to political motives and the high number of impunity cases linked to political will have to be addressed. Experts called for faster and more independent investigations into attacks and a stronger commitment to hold perpetrators responsible. Serious shortcomings in the implementation of the current legal framework pertaining to the security of journalists on a national and international level were identified. Monitoring and reporting on this implementation would also need to be improved and member states would have to receive advice from the United Nations on how to end impunity. In the case of inaction, sanctions at the international level should be considered.

Other possible preventive measures proposed by the experts called for the development of specific training programs for security forces dealing with the rights and role of the media and special training programs for journalists to familiarize them with professional standards for safe reporting and providing them with technical equipment beneficial to journalists in dangerous situations. Also, the importance of creatingmore opportunities to share and exchange examples of best practice at the national as well as international level was stressed.

Experts suggested that attacks against journalists should be qualified as “crimes against democracy,” in order to stress the gravity of such assaults. In addition the scope of Security Council Resolution 1738, which condemns intentional attacks against journalists in armed conflicts, should be expanded. Ideas for possible long-term objectives were also developed at the event. The creation of a special fund for the protection of journalists at the international level, for example at the United Nations, was recommended. Another proposal was to establish a court or tribunal in order to battle impunity and bring perpetrators to justice.

The event was widely regarded as a success yet, much work is still ahead. In May, another expert seminar with the Geneva Academy on International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights for the Protection of Journalists in Geneva is scheduled. In June, officials will meet with three regional U.N. special rapporteurs to get additional input. Also, a photo exhibition dealing with the protection of journalists will be organized this year.

“We are fully aware of the challenges, and the uphill road ahead,” Mr. Spindelegger concluded, “But we – governments and media representatives – owe our commitment to journalists under threat everywhere, to the courageous defiance and noble legacy of those media workers who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of their job, and to the citizens on every continent who have a fundamental right to know.”