The Need for Specific International Legal Protections of Journalists

The Need for Specific International Legal Protections of Journalists

[Todd Carney is a student at Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He has also worked in digital media in New York City and Washington D.C.]

Over the last three years, the world has seen two European democracies, Slovakia and Malta, face major political scandals regarding the murder of a journalist in each of their countries. Slovakia and Malta are not the only countries to make headlines over the scandals of murdered journalists. Both Russia and Saudi Arabia have faced allegations regarding their governments murdering journalists. This raises the question of what international legal protections exist for journalists? Though international law of course does not sanction the murder of people in general, journalists can be more at risk, especially when journalists are doing political reporting on problematic practices of a corrupt government. In response to the danger posed to journalists, there should be more legal protections establish on the international level to defend journalists globally. This piece looks at the current protections under international law for journalists and how further protections could be established.

Deaths of Journalists

In Slovakia in 2018, journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée were shot dead. Kuciak had been investigating business corruption of the ruling government of Slovakia. Given the suspicious circumstances of the murder, the then Prime Minister of Slovakia Robert Fico was forced to resign. However, the ruling government stayed in power and Fico was able to remain a member of parliament and chairman of the ruling party. Since then there have been internal investigations to hold the actual murderer of Kuciak accountable. The internal investigations have convicted one of the murderers, who agreed to a plea deal requiring him to testify against other parties in the crime in order for a more lenient sentence. Despite this success, there have still been concerns that Slovakia has not done enough. Many activists have demanded an investigation independent of the ruling government. Moreover, Slovakia has passed a law that allows politicians a “right to reply” which gives the politicians the power to censor news that targets politicians. Finally, the EU has called on Slovakia to establish laws to protect journalists, but those calls have gone unheeded so far.

Malta has had a similar scandal to Slovakia. In 2017, a remote detonated car bomb killed journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating corruption tied to the then Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s cabinet. Some justice occurred in Malta in 2019, when prominent businessman Yorgan Fenech was indicted for the murder of Caruana Galizia, and several ministers and Muscat himself were forced to resign. At the same time, there is still concern about the ability of Malta’s new Prime Minister to be able to conduct the investigation to bring complete justice in the case, because many of the corrupt interests that Caruana Galizia was investigating still remain in the government.

Saudi Arabia’s journalist scandal has clearly implicated the Saudi government. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi went into a Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and was murdered there. Khashoggi had been a close associate of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, but became critical of them and was in self-exile in the US starting in 2018. Saudi Arabia’s government initially denied that Khashoggi was murdered at the consulate and said he died moments after leaving the consulate. The Saudi government then claimed that some rogue government officials murdered Khashoggi and claimed that they could work internally to bring justice. Several high-ranking government officials did have to step down eventually. This scandal implicated Turkey as well, since the murder was in Turkey. Turkey and Saudi Arabia each conducted their own investigations, both of which were criticized by the international community.

Russia has been implicated in a slew of journalist deaths. Since 2006, a dozen journalists have been beaten close to death or outright killed. All of these journalists were working on pieces that cast Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration in a negative light. In all of the incidents, the attackers were either never found or if they were found, they were acquitted. The lack of accountability for attacks against journalists has brought widespread international criticism, but no real change has come on Russia’s end.

Attempted Solutions

In light of these tragic acts against journalists, there have been some attempts by the international community to enforce justice in these countries. For Slovakia and Malta, EU institutions have demanded the two countries do more to bring justice. For Slovakia, the European Parliament called on Slovakia to provide verification that the investigation was independent and for Slovakia to work with Europol to ensure the investigation is carried out properly. The EU Parliament also stressed that that all EU members needed better laws protecting journalists. The European Parliament also established a rule of law monitoring group to oversee Slovakia’s investigation. Similarly, with Malta, the European Parliament has monitored Malta’s investigation and is threatening more action if Malta’s investigation is compromised.

In regards to Saudi Arabia and Russia, there have been mixed actions. For Saudi Arabia, the US enacted sanctions in response to the murder of Khashoggi and has threatened further action if Saudi Arabia does not pursue proper justice. There has been some concern whether Trump is doing enough, because many feel Trump has not taken a harsh enough tone against Saudi Arabia. The EU has called for more transparency and is threatening sanctions. Regarding the scandals in Russia, there has not been as clear of a response. The US has leveled sanctions against Russia for murdering a former agent in London, but not for the deaths of journalists. Trump even joked with Putin that the US should “get rid” of journalists.

Potential Protections

Given that the only solutions under international law has been regional monitoring, widespread condemnations, and unilateral sanctions, there is clearly more that needs to be done to protect journalists under international law. Looking at the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the word “journalist” is not mentioned once, nor any other word or phrase alluding to the profession. Of course, journalists have other general protections listed in the ICCPR, such as the right to life, right to not be tortured, right to liberty, right to not be imprisoned, right to political thoughts, and right to freedom of association. Moreover, there was no way the drafters of the ICCPR could think of every single type of group that needs to be protected. The ICCPR was established just a few decades after the Holocaust and in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, yet there is no mention of specifically protecting Jews or people of color. Instead the ICCPR simply protects all religions and races. Moreover, there are other professions that could be vulnerable to attacks, such as humanitarian workers, people who work on political campaigns, and human rights lawyers, yet there is nothing specifying protections for these professions either. However, the fact that the journalists seem to have been more specifically targeted as of late means that it might be worth developing more specific protections for journalists in international law. Such protections could help create more pressure for international accountability when a journalist is murdered in a country.

Indeed, while the ICCPR may not clarify specific protected groups, there have been subsequent conventions that have done just that. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women spells out protections for women. Similarly there is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Even with regard to employment there is the Constitution of the International Labour Organization. There is no reason why the international community could not develop protections for a specific profession such as journalism.

To its credit, the UN has established a “Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.” The “plan” does not suggests developing further protections for journalists through an international convention, but instead simply calls for further resources and coordination among the UN and its member states. The plan indicates that the UN has not called for further legal protections because it believes there are extensive legal protections in place. Regarding legal protections, the plan specifically writes that protections for journalists are “are internationally recognized and often legally binding. Relevant conventions, declarations and resolutions include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the Geneva Conventions; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; UN Commission on Human Rights Resolution 2005/81; the UN Security Council Resolution 1738 (2006).” Some of the specific tactics that the plan hopes to use to protect journalists include: utilizing UN agencies that are already predisposed to do work that protects journalists, establish means for UN agencies to coordinate on issues concerning the safety of journalists, coming up with nation specific strategies to defend journalists and working with all member states for greater awareness and focus on the safety of journalists.

The UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council and even the Security Council have also “condemned” attacks on journalists, but these “condemnations” have no legal authority behind them. Given that Russia must have signed off on the Security Council condemnation, some might consider it meaningless or even hypocritical for the Security Council to issue a condemnation when the Security Council theoretically has the authority to leverage harsher punishments and that one of its members, Russia, is committing violence against journalists. However, the reality is that Russia would veto any punishment against nations that murder journalists due to Russia’s own actions.

Attacks against journalists appear to only be getting worse. Though the UN’s ideas for further coordination and resources in order to protect journalists and bring attackers to justice is a good short-term solution to an urgent problem, establishing specified protection through international law by way of a convention or a similar measure would be a better long-term strategy.

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Featured, General, International Human Rights Law, Organizations, Public International Law
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