Only a free media and responsible journalism can contribute to ending impunity universally, hence steps should be taken to punish those who target journalists through intimidation, threats, harassment, imprisonment, torture and even murders.
By Dusan Babic
Coincidentally, the day I started writing this text was December 10th. On that day in 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations adapted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). This document, which stemmed from the United Nations Charter, reaffirms the faith of peoples around the globe in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and equal worth of the human being. The UDHR is written in clear and simple terms, encompassing a broad range of basic human rights and freedoms to which all men and women, everywhere in the world, are entitled, without any distinction.
This year’s theme for the International Day of Human Rights was ‘Inclusion and the right to participate international law’, which concluded that “no matter who you are, or where you live, your Voice Counts”. Seductive indeed. Unfortunately, modern history testifies how the gap between what is written down and the actual state of human rights is becoming an abyss of shame, to put it mildly.
As we approach the end of this year, many international gatherings have taken place. I was in particular attracted by an international conference held in Vienna on November 23rd – the International Day to End Impunity. This conference – which was officially entitled the “UN Action Plan on Journalists’ Safety and Impunity” – was interpreted by some observers as the UN finally bringing action to words by prioritizing the safety of journalists and the fight against impunity.
UNESCO, as the lead UN Agency, is actively involved in this project. Under UNESCO auspices, the 1980 report, ‘Many Voices, One World’, was primarily inspired by the pressing need to eliminate striking disparities in communication and information flows. Underdeveloped and developing countries suffered from such imbalance not only in the communication and media sectors, but in general. What is disappointing, however, is the fact that nothing significantly changed since then.
In 1993 – amidst the carnage of war in the Balkans – representatives from 171 States met in Viennafor a World Conference on Human Rights. The conference’s motto was – “Human Rights: know them, demand them, defend them”. The Vienna Declaration and a program of actions was agreed. It was emphasized that even states that have not signed or ratified any human rights conventions or covenants are at least morally bound by the Vienna Declaration. Again, however, nothing changed. On the contrary, the state of human rights worldwide becomes ever worse.
In 2004 the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) perfectly reflected the core message of the 1980 Report, despite not being able to anticipate entirely the technical impact of new Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). One accurate remark calls for the political and moral divide to be bridged before the digital divide. Latest figures claim that Internet access worldwide is hitting more than two billion people. However, the digital divide is widening ever more.
In a video message to another gathering, organized by the UN International Telecommunication Union in Dubai on December 3rd, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said, inter alia, “our overall objective must be to ensure universal access to information and communication technology – including for the two-thirds of the world’s population currently not online.”
In 2006 the UN Human Rights Council replaced the highly-compromised UN Commission on Human Rights, established in 1946. The UN General Assembly decided that the Council’s functioning should be reviewed five years after its creation. In that context, the Universal Periodic Review was regarded as a real innovation, aimed at addressing human rights abuses globally. The first report on the the Council was delivered in early 2011. In brief, the Council, based in Geneva, failed to take concrete action or even to condemn serious human rights abuses around the world.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents “the world’s commitment to universal ideals of human dignity. OHCHR has a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights.” Lavish rhetoric only. Persistent overlapping between New York and Geneva hinders the effective struggle to promote and protect human rights.
Many are prone to object to the issue of ending impunity – asking why, for instance, should journalists/reporters, media professionals and associated personnel enjoy special status in an ambiance of widespread injustices around the world?
There have long been controversies over whose rights come first? Some argue that economic and social rights should come before civil and political rights; with a person’s right to eat being far more important than another person’s freedom of opinion and expression. Seemingly, however, it is a false dilemma, since in reality all rights depend on one other. Denial of basic civil and political rights and freedoms is usually not the result of economic backwardness, but rather the consequence of abuses committed by state/government authorities, various renegade groups and individuals.
A free press is at the core of balanced development. As a public watchdog, media should let people voice diverse opinions on a variety of matters, helping them build public consensus over important economic, social, cultural and other issues. Media freedom is not something per se for media communities only. It strongly affects us all. Without a free media, many wrongdoings – in particular those by governments and public authorities – would remain undisclosed or undiscovered.
The safety of journalists is of paramount importance, meaning that ending impunity should be an immediate priority. In the initial phase, the focus must be placed on punishing those who target journalists – either through intimidation, threats, harassment, imprisonment, torture and even murders. A culture of impunity is increasingly widespread, and it must be ended.
Only a free media and responsible journalism can contribute to ending impunity globally. Whilst this sounds like mission impossible, it is still worth trying.
Dusan Babic is a Sarajevo-based media and political analyst.