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After Security Council, what next for journalist safety?

NBC's Richard Engel and AP's Kathleen Carroll at the U.N. Security Council. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Speaking at a U.N. Security Council discussion about the protection of journalists, Associated Press Executive Editor and CPJ Vice Chair Kathleen Carroll remembered the 31 AP journalists who have died reporting the news and whose names grace the Wall of Honor that visitors pass as they enter the agency's New York headquarters. Most were killed covering war, from the Battle of the Little Big Horn to Vietnam to Iraq. But around the world, Carroll noted, "most journalists who die today are not caught in some wartime crossfire, they are murdered just because of what they do. And those murders are rarely ever solved; the killers rarely ever punished."

Three other journalists--AFP Somalia correspondent Mustafa Haji Abdinur, who said he's called "a dead man walking" because of the dangers reporting in Mogadishu; NBC chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel; and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who has reported on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya for the Guardian--also briefed the Security Council last Wednesday on challenges they face in the field. Representatives from a diverse array of countries took the floor to address the issue.

The United Nations is a complicated, at times baffling place. Numerous groups have been working for years to get press freedom and the safety of journalists on the agenda at the Security Council. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, along with the International News Safety Institute were instrumental in pushing for the 2006 passage of Security Council Resolution 1738, which reiterated the civilian status of the journalists covering conflict. A Day Without News, a group formed last year by Getty Images vice president Aidan Sullivan to raise awareness about the risks journalists confront, worked closely with British and U.S. diplomats to frame last week's discussion.

CPJ has worked for many years to sensitize U.N. leadership to press freedom issues. We have met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon twice, most recently in June 2011 with our colleagues from Reporters Without Borders, to raise concerns about impunity.

At the end of a long day of discussion at the Security Council it was clear that an important consensus had been reached: There has never been a more dangerous time for journalists, with record numbers killed and imprisoned around the world. But what can be done?

In 2012, after extensive consultation, the United Nations launched an interagency plan to combat impunity and improve the safety of journalists, with an initial focus on Iraq, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Nepal. One of the most gratifying parts of the Security Council discussion was that many countries expressed support for the plan and recognized the problem that it is intended to address--the murders of local journalists reporting on crime, corruption, and human rights. Of course, some of the expressions were entirely opportunistic. Russia, which has seen 16 journalists murdered in the past decade, proclaimed that violence against journalists is "unacceptable."

Implementation of the U.N. plan to combat impunity needs to be accelerated, notably in Pakistan. In May, CPJ published Roots of Impunity, an in-depth report documenting the murders of 23 Pakistani journalists, without a single conviction, over the past decade. The U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, has expressed an interest in traveling to Pakistan to assess the situation but is awaiting a formal invitation.  

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson encouraged the Security Council to regularly consider "the targeting of journalists and other threats to freedom of expression" in the context of the U.N.'s peace and security mandate. He also noted a link between access to independent media and information and the eradication of poverty. The next logical step is to ensure that measurements of press freedom and improvements in combating impunity are incorporated into the Millenium Development Goals. We should "measure what we treasure," as Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, has said. Levels of press freedom should be an indicator of public participation and accountability all over the world.

The tiny West African nation of Togo also made some useful recommendations. It called on the Security Council to include the protection of journalists more regularly in its work plan and for U.N. peacekeeping forces to be sensitized to the presence of journalists in the field, a suggestion reiterated by the US.

These are interesting ideas, but somewhat underwhelming given the magnitude of the problem--995 journalists killed, 673 of them murdered by CPJ's count since 1992. "We would have liked to have seen a grand finale," said Getty's Sullivan.

France, which co-sponsored Resolution 1738 back in 2006, will assume the rotating Security Council presidency in December. After years of engagement and dialogue with civil society groups, press freedom and the safety of journalists has moved much higher on the U.N. agenda. The language employed by member states has evolved over the years, with far greater focus on the most pressing challenge--the murders of local journalists.

That is a positive development. But as speaker after speaker noted, the situation is getting worse for journalists, not better. The challenge for the U.N. leadership, for the Security Council, and for member states, is to expand protection for journalists, fully implement the U.N. plan of action to combat impunity, strengthen international legal protections for the media, and measurably reduce violence and censorship around the world. It is positive that attitudes are shifting. But the real work has just begun.

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