The Commonwealth: Where being a journalist can kill you

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”99700″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]Fifty-three Commonwealth heads of government are meeting for a summit in London this week. Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, the UK Minister of State for the Commonwealth, lauded it as a unique network of 53 states with a responsibility to exert global influence based on a shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law and good governance as enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter of 2013.

But the record of Commonwealth countries concerning the rising number of killings of journalists — whose work holds a mirror up to the societies they live in – points to a dismal failure by the authorities in some member states to protect the lives of journalists targeted for their work. UN statistics also show that in all but a few cases the killers are shielded from facing justice by a climate of judicial impunity. Where is the rule of law in that?

In the five years from the start of 2013 to the end of 2017 as many as 57 journalists in Commonwealth countries were killed in the course of their work, according to UNESCO, the UN’s agency with a mandate to promote freedom of expression.

Most were killed to stop them from publishing reports into abuses of power, crime or corruption, often linked to public figures or law-enforcement officials.  Among the recent shocking murders of journalists are those of editor and journalist Gauri Lankesh, shot outside her home in Bangalore, India last September, and Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s best-known investigative journalist, killed in a car bombing one month later.

Yes, Commonwealth countries like India have pioneered some of the world’s most liberal Right to Information laws, and all member states are publicly committed to democratic standards including the separation of powers, independent courts and the rule of law.  

Yet Commonwealth governments have evaded the chorus of demands for them to take determined actions to confront the pattern of violent assaults and other arbitrary actions aimed at silencing journalists and news media whose role is to inform the public. The London summit is the right time for them to put this on their agenda.  

Luckily the Commonwealth has vigorous civil society organisations which already monitor cases of violence and intimidation against journalists and others who document abuses of civil and political rights. The Commonwealth Charter gives a mandate for strong action – despite the reluctance of some member states — by acknowledging the ‘surge in popular demands for democracy and human rights’.

UNESCO’s figures give this revealing breakdown of the 57 killings of journalists in Commonwealth countries in the five years up to the end of 2017: Pakistan 23, India 18, Bangladesh 8, Nigeria 3, and one each in Kenya, Malta, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

Even more troubling, perhaps, is the picture that emerges from UNESCO’s records on the lack of effective judicial follow-ups in countries where journalists have been killed. The figures are based on states’ replies, made on a voluntary basis, to requests for information made by the Director-General of UNESCO after every verified killing.

The latest official report published by the Director-General of UNESCO recorded state authorities’ responses to killings of journalists during the ten-year period from 2006 to 2015. In that decade 104 journalists were killed in eight Commonwealth (including 9 journalists killed during Sri Lanka’s civil war up to 2009). Those statistics — based on information supplied by the governments concerned — fail to record a single case in which the perpetrators were brought to justice.  Not one.

The figures are incomplete because too many states routinely fail to send back information about prosecutions, despite persistent requests from the Director-General of UNESCO. Further research shows that a handful of journalists’ killings in Commonwealth states have led to successful prosecutions – for example, in the cases of TV journalist Wali Khan Babar, killed in Pakistan in 2013, and Gautam Das, a Bangladeshi crime reporter killed in 2005.

A first step towards building confidence would be for all Commonwealth states to pledge to open investigations into the scores of unresolved cases and report any progress to the UN.       

Journalists are only one of many categories of people who may face violence or persecution in Commonwealth countries, with all their diversity and ethnic and political tensions. But half a dozen United Nations resolutions adopted since 2012 have recognised that journalists face special dangers because of their work and deserve protection in order to counter corruption and abuses of democratic rights.

In advance of the London summit a coalition of grassroots Commonwealth professional organisations has come together to urge government leaders at the summit to face up to this stain on the organisation’s record.  The Commonwealth Journalists Association joins the Commonwealth’s impressive networks of lawyers, legal educators, parliamentarians, academics and human rights advocates in putting forward a balanced and practical set of Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression and the Role of the Media in Good Governance.

The Principles are written guidelines for democratic rules of engagement, so to speak, between the media and the parliament, judiciary and executive.  The Principles will not be legally binding as Commonwealth states have made clear that would be anathema to them. But can at least serve as a manual of good practice to move the countries of the Commonwealth towards ending the scourge of impunity and fulfilling their public commitment to protect the media’s right to report on public affairs.

The heads of government meeting in London’s royal palaces this week should realise that if the Commonwealth cannot be part of the solution it may well be part of the problem.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/4″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-share-alt” color=”black” background_style=”rounded” size=”xl” align=”right”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”3/4″][vc_column_text]The Commonwealth Principles on freedom of expression and the role of the media in good governance was published on April 11. The signatory organisations are the CJA, the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Commonwealth Legal Education Association, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1523956946253-7cccb26e-7266-2″ taxonomies=”8996″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Dunja Mijatović: Online threats of killing, rape and violence everyday reality for too many female journalists

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

Female journalists and bloggers are increasingly being singled out and fiercely attacked online. (Photo: OSCE)

In a new online column for Index on Censorship, Dunja Mijatović, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, discusses relentless attacks on women journalists, and the impact on their lives.

No job comes without sacrifices, but how many downgrading comments, criticism or even threats can one person take before it becomes too much?

Just consider the experiences of a female journalist that I know:

She had her phone number shared on dating websites, her email and other accounts were hacked, she received death threats on Skype, the website publishing her articles was hacked and a sex video was posted with the implication that she had participated in an orgy. Anonymous articles with lies about her and her family were also posted online.

Imagine being forced to shut down your accounts on social media platforms because of such massive attacks with detailed images of rape and other forms of sexual violence.

At one point, you would probably be inclined to ask yourself if it is really worth it. Is this a career I want to continue to pursue?

In the past few years, more and more female journalists and bloggers have been forced to question their profession. Male journalists are also subject to hate speech and online abuse, but research findings suggest that female journalists face a disproportionate amount of gender-based threats and harassment on the internet. They are experiencing what Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, has described as a “double attack”: they are being targeted for being both a journalist and a woman.

How do these attacks affect female journalists’ lives, their work and society in general? Journalists are used to being in the frontline of conflict and they often deal with difficult and even dangerous situations. But what if you cannot shield yourself from these threats? What if the frontline became your own doorstep, your office or your computer screen?

Not only do these kinds of attacks cause severe physiological trauma for journalists and their families, but by constantly being singled out and targeted with abusive comments, many female journalists may re-evaluate the issues they choose to cover. In this way, such attacks pose a clear and present threat to free media and the society as a whole.

Online abuse must be dealt with within the existing human rights framework, with governments committed to protecting journalists’ safety and addressing gender discrimination. Governments must ensure that law enforcement agencies understand the severity of this issue and are equipped with the necessary training and tools to more efficiently investigate and prosecute online threats and abuse.

We have to acknowledge that online threats are as real and unacceptable as threats posed in the offline world. The landmark resolution 20/8 on internet freedom adopted by United Nations Human Rights Council in 2012, affirmed that “the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression”, and set out a clear path in this respect.

The responsibility to counter online abuse of female journalists does not solely rest with law enforcement agencies, however. The broader media community itself also plays an important role. One of the challenges facing media outlets is how to improve quality of content moderation without invoking censorship.

Sarah Jeong, lawyer, journalist and author of The Internet of Garbage, provides proper context, “moderation paradoxically increases the number of voices heard, because some kinds of speech chills other speech. The need for moderation is sometimes oppositional to free speech, but sometimes moderation aids and delivers more free speech”.

Media outlets need to address the current structures and strategies in place that provide support and relief to journalists who face online abuse. A recent survey of female journalists in the OSCE region carried out by my office suggests that employers’ awareness and active involvement in dealing with these issues is of crucial importance. Unfortunately, the survey also indicated that media outlets are not as involved as they should be.

International organisations should also dedicate resources to tackle this issue, given their widespread reach and vast partnership networks. UNESCO’s work on gender-related aspects of journalists’ safety serves as a good example. In their recent report Building Digital Safety for Journalists, online abuse of female journalists was rightly pointed out as one of the main challenges in building digital safety.

This year I have tried to use my mandate and tools given to me as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media to get the OSCE participating states involved. We need to realize that different stakeholders face different challenges, but that each stakeholder’s involvement is a crucial piece of the puzzle in identifying solutions.

To further the discussion on protection of female journalists in the OSCE region, on 17 September my office will host a conference, New Challenges to Freedom of Expression: Countering Online Abuse of Female Journalists, to provide a platform for discussions on best practices and recommendations on combating this dangerous trend. The event will be streamed live on and will feature presentations by high-level experts from all over the world.

This column was posted on 27 August 2015 at

Azerbaijani journalist appeals to Christiane Amanpour to help jailed colleagues

Azerbaijani journalist Idrak Abbasov’s story bears all the hallmarks of the typical forms of pressure used by an increasingly intolerant regime to silence its critics. Abbasov became a target for providing a rare critical voice in a media climate dominated by the state. As a result, Abbasov and his family faced years of pressure, ranging from harassment and threats to physical attacks. Nonetheless, he persisted in his efforts to tell the truth about the situation in his country.

In April 2012, just weeks after winning an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award, Abbasov was brutally beaten by employees of the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) whilst filming them demolishing houses in his village. As a result of the attack, he was hospitalised and sustained serious injuries, including broken ribs, damage to his internal organs, and injuries to his eyes. No one was ever prosecuted, and SOCAR blamed Abbasov for instigating the attack.

After the attack, the pressure continued to mount against Abbasov and his family – even his young children. Eventually, they were forced to flee the country for safety, like many other journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists, who are forming an ever-growing community of exiles.

Abbasov continues speaking out even now, drawing international attention to the situation in Azerbaijan, and trying to help his colleagues who have been jailed or otherwise targeted. Now, in the midst of an unprecedented crackdown in the country, he has written a letter to Christiane Amanpour in her new capacity as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety.

In his letter, on behalf of the Sport for Rights campaign, Abbasov detailed the unprecedented human rights crackdown taking place in Azerbaijan, in particular the cases of jailed journalist Khadija Ismayilova, and human rights defender Emin Huseynov, who has been trapped at the Swiss Embassy in Baku since August 2014, facing arrest if he attempts to leave. Abbasov urged Amanpour to make a statement condemning the crackdown and calling for the release of the country’s jailed journalists and human rights defenders.

Abbasov also called on Amanpour to take steps to hold UNESCO responsible for its freedom of expression mandate with respect to Azerbaijan, and to undertake a fact-finding mission to the country. He noted that a visit by Amanpour would be timely in the aftermath of the inaugural European Games – which will take place in Baku from 12-28 June – in light of potential acts of reprisal against Azerbaijanis who speak out in the run-up to the Games.

The Sport for Rights campaign hopes that Amanpour will respond, and take action to address the serious freedom of expression violations in the country, before the situation becomes even worse. In particular, Amanpour could be a useful intermediary with Azerbaijani First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, herself a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador.

In the meantime, it is journalists like Idrak Abbasov and Khadija Ismayilova, and human rights defenders like Emin Huseynov, who will continue paying the price for the international community’s silence on the widespread repression being carried out by the Azerbaijani regime. They at least deserve a sporting chance.

Oslo, Norway
14 May 2015

Dear Ms Amanpour,

I am writing to you as the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Freedom of Expression and Journalist Safety. Congratulations on your appointment! You may remember me from the Rory Peck Awards in 2013, where I received the Martin Adler Award for my freelance journalism in Azerbaijan. Unfortunately, the situation in Azerbaijan has drastically deteriorated since our meeting in London, and my family and I have been forced to leave the country for safety.

Now, I am writing to you with some requests from the Sport for Rights campaign, a coalition of international organisations working to promote human rights in Azerbaijan in the context of the inaugural European Games, which will take place in Baku this June. In the run-up to the Games, the Azerbaijani authorities have engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all criticism and dissent.

As a result, eight journalists are now behind bars on spurious charges. One of them is prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, whom you met when she received an award from the International Women’s Media Foundation in 2012. Khadija is now in detention, facing serious jail time on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, abuse of power, and inciting someone to attempt suicide. Khadija has been targeted for her fearless reporting, much of which focused on corruption of Azerbaijan’s ruling elite, including President Aliyev and his family.

Five human rights defenders are also in jail on spurious charges, all strong advocates of freedom of expression. Another human rights defender, Emin Huseynov, remains trapped in the Swiss embassy in Baku, facing arrest on spurious charges of illegal entrepreneurship, tax evasion, and abuse of power. Emin has been targeted for his work as director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Azerbaijan’s leading freedom of expression advocacy organization. Emin has long been at the forefront of promoting freedom of expression and free media. He is a tireless defender of free speech, not only in his native Azerbaijan but also throughout the former Soviet Union and beyond.

Besides arrests, the authorities have stepped up other forms of pressure on journalists. Violence against journalists remains a serious problem, with complete impunity for their attackers. Harassment, threats, and intimidation are an everyday reality for critical journalists. A growing number of journalists, like me, have been forced to leave the country for safety.

In light of these and other serious problems, the Sport for Rights campaign has three requests for you. Firstly, we urge you to make an immediate statement condemning the ongoing human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan and calling for the release of the jailed journalists and human rights defenders. We have enclosed a list of their names and case details, and can provide further information as needed.

Secondly, we ask that you take steps to hold UNESCO responsible for its freedom of expression mandate with respect to Azerbaijan. Despite the alarming freedom of expression situation in the country, Azerbaijan has received nothing but praise from UNESCO. Director-General Irina Bokova has consistently failed to mention freedom of expression in her public remarks related to Azerbaijan.

Finally, we encourage you to undertake a mission to Azerbaijan to investigate the situation in the country, visit our jailed colleagues, and raise these serious issues directly with the authorities, including First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva, who is herself a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. This would be particularly helpful in the aftermath of the European Games, as we are worried about possible acts of retribution towards our few remaining brave colleagues in the country, as has been the case after past international events.

Thank you for considering our requests, and as ever, for your support for freedom of expression. I would greatly appreciate anything you could do to help improve the situation in my country before it gets any worse.

Sincerely yours,
Idrak Abbasov

Joint declaration urges governments to safeguard freedom of expression

The four international freedom of expression rapporteurs kicked things off by launching a joint declaration encouraging states to safeguard freedom of expression against commercial and political interests during the global transition from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting, Brian Pellot reports from UNESCO’s 20th annual World Press Freedom Day conference.

© IWMFEthiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu wins 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize

© IWMFEthiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu wins 2013 UNESCO-Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize