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MEDIA: Journalists Increasingly at Risk Says UN Report

A. D. McKenzie

PARIS, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - A record 77 journalists were killed last year, making 2009 one of the most dangerous years for media workers, according to a report published Thursday by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency.

The organisation denounced the slayings, saying that governments need to do more to protect journalists and to bring their killers to justice.

The report, prepared by UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), says that “impunity” is one of the main problems in attacks against the media, and that this represents a “severe threat” to freedom of expression.

The report comes as the IPDC’s 39-member intergovernmental council holds a three-day meeting here. On Friday, when the meeting ends, officials are expected to adopt a draft decision recommending that the IPDC “continue monitoring the follow-up of killings condemned by UNESCO’s director-general”.

They will also advise the agency to propose that a one-minute silence be observed in newsrooms around the world on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, “to honour the journalists killed each year”.

Sources told IPS that some UNESCO member-states objected to being named in the U.N. agency’s press statement on the report. But media-protection groups such as Reporters Without Borders (RWB) and the International Federation of Journalists have made available the list of countries that account for the 77 killings.

The Philippines tops the list with 33 journalists killed there in 2009, according to RWB. UNESCO, meanwhile, says that there were “37 murders targeting journalists” during the same period in the Philippines. Of these, about 30 journalists were killed in only one day, in an ambush on Nov. 23.

Although war-torn Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan also feature on the list, many of the journalists were killed in countries outside of conflict zones, the UNESCO survey said. The murders were carried out to stop them revealing sensitive information – about drug trafficking, violation of human rights or corruption, the report said.

In Russia, for instance, five journalists were murdered last year, as they investigated crime and corruption.

Vincent Brossel, a spokesman for RWB, told IPS that there was too little coordination among the various agencies working to protect journalists, but that his group had joined with UNESCO to publish a practical handbook to help journalists in the field.

“We also want to expose the serious situation that’s taking place,” he said. “Much more needs to be done. Governments should create conditions that are favourable for media workers, especially in certain countries where there is always violence related to elections.”

Brossel said that journalists are increasingly seen as a target for a wide range of attackers, including terrorists and religious fundamentalists. Nine journalists were killed in Somalia last year and five in Pakistan, and investigations indicate such groups were involved, he said.

As part of a protection campaign, RWB has developed a programme to rent bullet-proof vests to the media, especially war correspondents. The programme is currently available only in France, RWB’s headquarters, but it will be expanded to other countries, Brossel said.

The group also organises training sessions with the French army that simulates the reporting conditions in war zones.

Arnold Karskens, a Dutch war correspondent for the daily ‘De Pers’ and author of seven books on war and war journalism, said such measures offered limited security.

“The only real protection is for governments to make it known that there will be consequences for those who kill journalists,” he told IPS in an interview. “In some countries, militants know that they have carte blanche to kill journalists who are against a political party or against certain issues. Governments must tell these attackers that they will face the consequences.”

Karskens, who has covered the war in Iraq and reported from many other conflict zones, said measures should be taken to bring attention to every murder and to ensure prosecution of the perpetrators.

“If they want to kill you, they will,” he added. “But they shouldn’t be able to get away with it.”

So far six journalists have been killed this year, but murder is not the only threat media workers face. According to RWB figures, 178 journalists and 120 “netizens” have been imprisoned since the year began.

Without naming names, UNESCO this week reminded its member-states that the organisation had adopted the Medellin Declaration in 2007 which states that “press freedom can only be enjoyed when media professionals are free from intimidation, pressure and coercion”.

This declaration requires states “to uphold their obligations to prevent, investigate and punish crimes against journalists,” says the agency’s report.

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