Sunday, February 07, 2010

Three years on, landmark UN Resolution lies on stony ground as Filipino journalists mourn a massacre

On December 23, 2006, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1738 expressing deep concern at the frequency of attacks on journalists around the world and calling for all parties to armed conflict to put an end to such practices.

In December 2009 the world's news community mourns the deaths of 31 journalists in the Philippines, slaughtered in the worst single atrocity perpetrated against the news media and a free press in recorded history.

According to data compiled by the International News Safety Institute (INSI), 347 journalists and support staff have died trying to bring us the news around the world since our highest international political body issued that landmark call for action to stem the bloodshed. That is an average of two a week, a grim statistic that has persisted unchanged for at least the past 13 years, before and after the resolution.

The slain Filipino journalists died simply for doing their job, covering a convoy of politicians and supporters heading across the southern province of Maguindanao on 23 November to nominate a candidate for the May election.They were ambushed by gunmen who systematically eliminated every soul in the contingent.

The massacre did not solely affect the news media, nor, apparently, were they the specific target. Twenty-seven other civilians were murdered too. But it was the bloodiest blot conceivable on the resolution passed with such impressive unanimity just three years ago by world leaders who stated they were gravely concerned by the journalist death toll.

Resolution 1738 provided for all elements of the Philippines slaughter precisely.

It demanded "all parties to armed conflict comply with their obligations under international law to protect civilians in armed conflict". 57 civilians died, most cruelly and deliberately murdered.

It urged all parties to "respect the professional independence and rights of civilians." It reminded that media professionals engaged in dangerous professional missions in conflict zones "shall be considered civilians, to be respected and protected as such".

Not a jot did the gunmen and their leaders care for any of that. They never paused for thought as they cocked their guns, cut down their victims and then ploughed their bodies into a hillside with a handy backhoe.

Finally, the resolution emphasized States were obliged 'to end impunity and to prosecute those responsible" for such grave violations of international law.

The responsibility of meeting that demand of 1738 now lies lies squarely with the Philippines government. It was reminded of its duty by a statement from an international media mission to the scene of the massacre 6-10 December.

It might be said by some that we journalists indulge in special pleading, that the news media in this instance died by way of collateral damage in a political onslaught which also claimed 27 other civilian lives. But we might reasonably assume the slaughter was so dreadful and so complete because the killers wanted no witnesses to survive to testify to the political murder -- especially no professional reporters.

Without diminishing the loss of the other civilians in any way we would argue also that journalists are something of a special case. They go into danger voluntarily on behalf of all of us. Acting at their highest, they are the world's eyes and ears, the peoples' emissaries in deadly places.

And here we might address more fully the vexed question of impunity for the killers of journalists.

Killing The Messenger, INSI's investigation into the deaths of 1,000 news media staff between 1996 and 2006, reported in that in almost 9 out of 10 cases of murder no one had been brought to justice. That scandalous statistic persists, undermining many developing nations and ultimately threatening free societies everywhere.

The Philippines' record on impunity is worth noting. At least 75 journalists have met a violent death since President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power in 2001 and only four convictions have been obtained. In that time the Philippines, a vibrant democracy in so many other respects, has become the bloodiest country in the world for the news media outside Iraq.

Aidan White, the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists, said Arroyo had blood on her hands. "Her government has created the circumstances for this massacre by allowing a culture of impunity to flourish," he said.

Nestor Burgos, chairman of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, called on "all journalists to join us, to band together, to end this culture of impunity over journalist killings."

There can be little doubt that a widespread reluctance to properly investigate journalist murders and prosecute the killers has contributed to the rising death toll around the globe over the past decade. In an age of polarization and extremism, murder in many places has become a relatively risk-free and extremely effective means of censorship. The immediate irritant is removed and colleagues intimidated into silence - all for no comeback.

Hence the United Nations decision to act. But its declaration, welcome though it was, is not enough. It lacks force.

The world's broadcasters, meeting at the 4th World Electronic Media Forum in Mexico City, recognized this. They unanimously approved a declaration to be sent to the UN Secretary General, the President of the Security Council, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO demanding action under Resolution 1738.

"Journalists are killed as they try to shine the light of truth into the darkest recesses of their societies," they said. "States must apply their laws against murder equally to all of their citizens and end the culture of impunity that so often protects the murderers of journalists."

In Killing The Messenger, INSI called on States to live up to their responsibilities under 1738 and observe the resolution in "letter and in spirit".

We also suggested that international development institutions, such as the World Bank and IMF, might consider adding teeth to the resolution by including a country's record on murder of journalists when assessing aid and other assistance.

After all, there can be no true development, no end to corruption and poverty, where there is no freedom to speak, criticize, expose and enlighten. And there can be no freedom of expression where journalists are murdered for doing their job. So just enforce the law. No more, no less. (Rodney Pinder. The author is the Director of the INSI)

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