Module 10: Violence Against Journalists
“The most extreme form of censorship is to kill a journalist. The killing not only silences the voice of the particular journalist, but also intimidates other journalists and the public in general.”
UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns(1)
UNESCO’s Observatory on Killed Journalists documents 1529 journalists and media workers who have been killed since 1993.(2) Impunity for these cases is unfortunately high: as of 2020, only 13% of the cases had been resolved.(3) A number of countries in South and Southeast Asia are among the worst performers, including the Philippines (112), Pakistan (86), Afghanistan (81), India (65), Bangladesh (25) and Sri Lanka (12).(4) The Committee for the Protection of Journalists also includes Afghanistan, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India on its impunity index, which counts countries with more than five unsolved journalist murders.(5)
While killings are a particularly grave example of violence against journalists, other forms of violence also have serious impacts on the realisation of freedom of expression. These include, for example, torture, arbitrary arrest or detention, enforced disappearances, intimidation or harassment, and threats. Data on such acts is more challenging to track, but they can have serious consequences for freedom of expression.
None of these kinds of attacks on journalists, if based on their exercise of freedom of expression, can be justified “under any circumstance”.(6) Such acts not only violate freedom of expression but also may violate other fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to liberty and security of the person, or the right to be free from interference with one’s privacy, family or home life.
States must first ensure that their own agents do not commit violence against journalists. State officials must, in addition to avoiding acts of violence themselves, “control and adequately supervise their officers”.(7) On the other hand, lower-level officials should not be able to rely on a defence of obedience to superior orders for these kinds of serious crimes.(8) Government officials should also take care to avoid making public statements which stigmatise the media, threaten journalists or undermine respect for media independence.(9)
States also have positive obligations to create a safe environment for journalists. This means exercising due diligence to address attacks on journalists by non-State actors. A State’s positive obligations in these areas can be summarised as an obligation to prevent, to protect and to investigate, prosecute and redress.
- Preventing violence against journalists: States should take action to prevent violence against journalists, including “prevention mechanisms and actions to address some of the root causes of violence against journalists and of impunity.”(10) These preventative measures may include amending legal frameworks to criminalise properly acts of violence against journalists, revising the media law framework to enable the media to engage freely in journalistic activity without interference, undertaking awareness-raising and education efforts, monitoring and reporting on attacks on journalists, or training security personnel, among others.(11)
Compelling Good Behaviour from Investigatory Authorities: A Case from Pakistan
While investigatory authorities have primary responsibility for taking measures to prevent their own agents from harassing or using violence against journalists, courts can also order or recommend institutional changes. A good example is the decision of the Islamabad High Court in Rana Muhammad Arshad v. Pakistan. The journalist in this case had received a vague notice issued by the Federal Investigating Agency under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, followed by a raid of his residence, apparently because of a tweet he had disseminated.
The Court noted an increase in complaints about vague notices under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. It expressed concern that this was either the result of a misinterpretation of the law or an attempt to suppress journalism, contrary to the duty of the State to avoid any actual or perception of an abuse of its powers in order to threaten the press.(12) The Court instructed the Federal Investigating Agency to formulate guidelines for investigating officers and to consider prescribing special guidelines regarding investigations of journalists, in light of the importance of freedom of the press. The Court also suggested that the government should consider establishing a mechanism for handling complaints about violations of freedom of the press and hold consultations with press institutions to understand their perceptions about media intimidation by authorities.(13)
- Protecting at-risk journalists: States should also adopt “effective measures” to protect journalists from attacks.(14) They could include issuing protective orders promptly, establishing specific information-gathering mechanisms or creating early warning mechanisms.(15) It could also include offering specific protection to at-risk journalists, such as safety equipment, hotlines or even guards where needed.
In some cases, particularly in countries with recurring incidents of violence against journalists, specialised protection mechanisms should be created. Such mechanisms may incorporate features such as an urgent action procedure where journalists can request protective support.
When a State fails to take steps to protect a specific journalist who is at risk, that State may violate its obligation to protect. Whether the State has taken sufficient steps to protect a journalist will depend on the facts. However, in assessing State obligations in these cases, the European and Inter-American regional human rights courts have relied upon the following standard: whether authorities knew or should have known of a real and immediate danger to the journalist and failed to take reasonable protective measures.(16)
- Investigation, prosecution and redress of attacks: When an attack on a journalist occurs, authorities have a responsibility to take effective steps to investigate and prosecute that crime, and ensure that proper redress is provided. Failing to do so may violate Article 2(3) of the ICCPR (or the equivalent in other treaties), which requires effective remedies for human rights violations, in addition to freedom of expression and other implicated rights.(17)
The investigation and prosecution of such crimes should meet certain minimum standards. They should be investigated thoroughly and rigorously, in a timely manner, and by impartial and effective authorities.(18) Ensuring these standards are met will require certain institutional efforts, such as ensuring investigatory units are sufficiently well-resourced and that the independence of courts is protected.(19)
In examining individual cases, human rights courts have looked at a variety of factors when assessing whether the State has fulfilled its obligations. Examples where this obligation was not met include:
- Unjustified or unreasonable delays in investigation and prosecution, such as when Russia failed to provide “convincing and plausible” reasons for lengthiness of investigations into the assassination of a journalist.(20)
- Insufficient independence for responsible government authorities, such as when a Colombian military tribunal investigated alleged attacks on a journalist by members of the military.(21)
- Failing to investigate whether a journalist’s murder was linked to his work as a journalist.(22)
Proper redress includes not only obtaining a conviction but also ensuring the victim (or family members) are appropriately compensated. Such reparations may include broader restitution or rehabilitation measures such as public apologies or memorials, guarantees to prevent such crimes in the future or changing laws and practices.(23)
Finally, while this Module deals with human rights law, journalists are also protected under international humanitarian law, which governs armed conflicts. Under international humanitarian law, journalists are considered to be civilians, not combatants.(24) Like other civilians present in a war zone, they should not be the subject of intentional military attacks.