When independent journalists report on the large-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, they show the reality of the war. They show its barbarism, its cruelty and the humanitarian tragedies that inevitably accompany it. They provide viewers with accurate information about events on the ground and contribute to the collection of evidence of war crimes for future accountability mechanisms.
For this, journalists and media workers often pay a high price, or even the highest. On September 19, Ukrainian journalist Zhanna Kyseliova was kidnapped from her home in the city of Kakhovka. On May 30, French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff was killed while traveling in a humanitarian transport filled with fleeing civilians. Two weeks earlier, Oleksii Vorontsov, an engineer at the UA public broadcaster: Kherson, was kidnapped. In mid-March, Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and his colleague and Ukrainian journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova were killed when their vehicle was attacked. At about the same time, Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin disappeared and was later found dead near Kyiv.
At least eight journalists and other media workers have been killed in the line of duty since Russia launched its war of aggression in Ukraine in February. Many more have been injured, kidnapped and mistreated.
War is an extreme situation. But journalism is not safe even in peaceful environments. Many journalists carry out their work in constant fear of threats and attacks. The acute threat to media workers is not a distant problem. Globally, including in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe region, the safety of media workers is under constant and increasing pressure.
Journalists face a barrage of online and offline threats, surveillance, intimidation, physical attacks and imprisonment. Women journalists are increasingly under attack as journalists and as victims of sexual and gender-based violence, especially online.
When those who deliver the facts to inform citizens are attacked, the very foundations of society are at stake. Free, independent and pluralistic media are as necessary for 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 has sparked a deep mistrust of journalists, with protesters, online trolls, and opportunistic political actors fueling violence against the hated “mainstream media” or what they perceive to be purveyors of “fake news.”
We must reverse this trend. The fate of our democracies depends on the ability of journalists to express themselves freely and work safely. Ensuring this is not an easy task, and governments and international organizations cannot do it alone.
Major social change requires a concerted effort at all levels of society. While this effort is undoubtedly difficult to undertake, we need to start somewhere by drawing more attention to the issue and bolstering support for initiatives that support this crucial work.
Ten years ago, the United Nations approved the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Problem of Impunity, the world’s first concerted effort to create a free and safe environment for media workers. It is time to meet again to discuss new and emerging issues and to give new impetus to the implementation of the plan.
To this end, the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, organized a high-level conference on November 3 and 4 in Vienna, with the aim of reaffirming the international commitment to the safety of journalists and creating a platform to advance the objectives of the plan.
Twenty-five years ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe established the mandate of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM). Participating states saw the need for an independent watchdog to scrutinize them and help them work toward the goal of true press freedom.
Since then, the RFoM has defended the important contribution of press freedom to security. There have been countless interventions in which journalists have been attacked for their work, media pluralism has been restricted, investigative journalism has been hampered, and freedom of expression has been criminalized. Many laws have been improved and numerous safeguards have been put in place.
These efforts will be more necessary than ever in the coming years. To confront the growing threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists, representatives of states and international organizations must join forces and operationalize the results of the high-level conference in Vienna.
We will have to review our laws on the protection of journalists and bring the attackers to justice. We also need more systematic reporting related to attacks on journalists to keep our media safe. Only by protecting journalists can we protect press freedom and our democracies. — © Syndicate Project
Alexander Schallenberg is the Austrian Foreign Minister. Teresa Ribeiro is the Media Freedom Representative at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.