/ 9 November 2022

Defend democracy’s defenders

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Women released from Russian captivity within the framework of a large-scale exchange of POWs speak with journalists during the meeting in Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.(Dmytro Smolyenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

When independent journalists report on the full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, they show the reality of war. They show its barbarism, its cruelty and the humanitarian tragedies that inevitably accompany it. They provide viewers with accurate reporting on the developments on the ground and contribute to the collection of war-crimes evidence for future accountability mechanisms. 

For this, journalists and media workers often pay a heavy — or even the ultimate — price. On 19 September, Ukrainian journalist Zhanna Kyseliova was kidnapped from her home in the city of Kakhovka. On 30 May, French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff was killed while riding with a humanitarian transport full of fleeing civilians. Two weeks earlier, Oleksii Vorontsov, an engineer of public broadcaster UA: Kherson was abducted. In mid-March, Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and his Ukrainian colleague and journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova were killed when their vehicle came under fire. At about the same time, Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin went missing and was later found dead near Kyiv.

At least eight journalists and other media workers have been killed while carrying out their duties since Russia launched its war of aggression in Ukraine in February. Many more have been wounded, abducted and mistreated.

War is an extreme situation. But journalism is not safe even in peaceful settings. Many journalists conduct their work in constant fear of threats and attacks. The acute threat to media workers is not some faraway problem. Globally, including in the region of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the safety of media workers is under constant and growing pressure

Journalists face a barrage of online and offline threats, surveillance, intimidation, physical attacks and imprisonment. Women journalists are increasingly being targeted both as journalists and as victims of sexual and gender-based violence, especially online.

When those who deliver the facts to inform citizens come under attack, the foundation of society is at stake. Free, independent and pluralistic media are as necessary to democracy as elections, parliaments and independent judges.

The Covid-19 pandemic showed the need for reliable information. Any major government policy needs at least a modicum of public support in a democracy. At the same time, the pandemic sparked deep mistrust of journalists, with demonstrators, online trolls and opportunistic political actors stoking violence against the hated “mainstream media” or what they perceive as purveyors of “fake news”.

We must reverse this trend. Our democracies’ fate depends on journalists’ ability to express themselves freely and work safely. Ensuring this is not an easy task, and governments and international organisations cannot do it alone. 

Large societal change requires a concerted effort at all levels of society. Although this effort is no doubt hard to realise, we must start somewhere by bringing more attention to the issue and bolstering support for the initiatives that support this crucial work.

Ten years ago, the United Nations endorsed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, the first concerted effort globally to create a free and safe environment for media workers. It is time to convene again to discuss new and emerging problems and to provide new impetus for the plan’s implementation.

To this end, the Austrian foreign ministry, together with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, organised a high-level conference on 3 and 4 November in Vienna, with the goal to reaffirm international commitment to the safety of journalists and to create a platform for advancing the plan’s objectives.

Twenty-five years ago, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe established the mandate of the representative on freedom of the media (RFoM). Participating states saw the need for an independent watchdog to scrutinise and assist them in working toward the goal of true media freedom. 

Since then, the RFoM has defended the important contribution of media freedom to security. Countless interventions have been made where journalists were attacked for their work, media pluralism was restricted, investigative reporting was hindered and free speech was criminalised. Many laws have been improved, and numerous safeguards have been erected.

Such efforts will be needed more than ever in the coming years. To confront the growing threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists, representatives of states and international organisations must combine forces and operationalise the outcomes of the Vienna high-level conference.

We will need to review our laws on the protection of journalists and bring attackers to justice. We also need more systematic reporting related to attacks against journalists in order to keep our media safe. Only by protecting journalists can we protect the freedom of the press – and our democracies. — © Project Syndicate

Alexander Schallenberg is the Austrian foreign minister. Teresa Ribeiro is the Representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.