The publication of the report – Providing Safe Refuge for Journalists at Risk – was marked by a virtual launch event on Monday at the International Bar Association’s (Virtually Together) Annual Conference on the topic of growing attacks on media freedom.
Authored by leading international lawyer and member of the High Level Panel, Professor Can Yeğinsu, the report is the third of a series of advisory reports directed at members of the 40 strong Media Freedom Coalition of States, led by the United Kingdom and Canadian Governments.
Every year, scores of journalists flee their countries to escape threats to their safety, the report says.
It finds that the current legal pathways open to the journalist who has been left with no choice but to flee are, at best, slow and difficult to navigate and, at worst, cumbersome and ineffective.
This is particularly so where a reporter needs to move swiftly in the face of an imminent threat.
Many journalists are simply unable to move, with sometimes appalling consequences.
Speaking at the International Bar Association's Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) launch of the report this week, lawyer Amal Clooney said that more than half of the world’s population lives in a country where freedom of expression is in crisis.
Silencing the truth
“We know that in the COVID era, silencing the truth has become deadly. Individuals in China who tried to report on the virus when it was first detected were prosecuted for spreading false rumours,” she said.
Journalists in more than a dozen countries have been prosecuted merely for questioning their government’s response to the pandemic, she continued
Protecting journalists means getting them out of harm’s way when they face imminent danger.
This also means providing robust diplomatic support if they are arrested, she said.
“These days the number of journalists dying outside of war zones is greater than those killed by war,” Amal Clooney added.
The UN reports that nine out of ten murders of journalists have not been prosecuted.
Rule of law
Professor Guy Berger of UNESCO said press freedom is a crucial part of the rule of law, and is as important as the independence of the judiciary and of lawyers.
The son of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia told the webinar that corruption is not a victimless crime.
“There are countless victims, like my mother,” said Matthew Caruana Galizia, who is himself a journalist and who has campaigned for justice since his mother’s assassination.
He said that in her 30-year career, his mother had suffered intimidation and harassment.
Her car was set on fire and her dogs murdered, and she received constant threatening phone calls.
“My mom got used to it, I got used to it, my brothers got used to it, so did my dad.
“I think this is a feeling that many journalists understand … they get used to this kind of harassment, and not many people around you notice because they think that while you are still writing, everything is fine,” he said.
But the "horrible statistics” show that journalists are murdered with impunity.
“My experience working in journalism is that journalists have become exceptionally good at what they do, and they have become so, under such extremes of pressure.
“Large international collaborations have formed spontaneously and have been able to crack extremely complicated money-laundering cases or corruption cases,” he said.
The fact that the Panama Papers had taken down entire governments was truly extraordinary, he said.
But institutions and legal mechanisms have not properly caught up with what journalists have become capable of, meaning journalists are bearing the brunt of exposing corruption, he said.
“Allow us to make something good out of this terrible thing that has happened,” he said, referring to the death of his mother.
“Before my mother’s murder there was an impression in Europe that we were impervious to corruption or to serious human rights abuse.
“But here we are, three years on from the murder of my mother and we are still in this daily fight for justice for her,” Matthew said.
The event was addressed by Canadian Minister for Foreign Affairs François-Philippe Champagne who said that lawyers have a unique role in the defence of media freedom.
“The work of the high level legal panel must remain front and centre because the defence of media freedom is nothing less than the defence of our democratic values,” he said.
Tory life peer Baron Ahmad of Wimbledon said that those who threaten media freedom must be held to account.
“We need to amplify our collective voice, as we call out corruption and champion truth in media environments around the world,” he said.
377 reporters imprisoned
Even during the pandemic, 32 journalists had lost their lives, Lord Ahmad said, and a further 377 have been imprisoned.
“Every one of these cases is unacceptable,” he said.
Moderator Helena Kennedy QC said that an independent media has a fundamental role in all of our societies, and we lose it at very great cost.
The report concludes that individual states hold the keys to safe refuge for journalists at risk and makes the following recommendations:
1) States should introduce an emergency visa for journalists at risk,
2) In the absence of a journalist-specific emergency visa, States should commit to the expedited processing of visa applications received from journalists who are determined to be at risk,
3) In the absence of a journalist-specific emergency visa, States should provide an opportunity for journalists at risk making visa applications to provide information on issues of character and security that may arise (as for journalists subject to criminal investigation or charges for their work), and ensure that such visa applications are assessed fairly and accurately in the light of that, and other available, information,
4) States should commit to granting visas to immediate family members/dependents of journalists at risk who are granted visas,
5) States should issue travel documents to relocated journalists at risk if their home countries move to revoke or cancel their passports,
6) States should permit refugee protection visa applications to be made by journalists at risk, from within their home State,
7) States should make clear in their domestic law that journalists at risk can fall within the definition of a ‘refugee’ for the purposes of the Refugee Convention, or otherwise qualify for international protection,
8) INTERPOL should require States seeking the issuance of a Red Notice to specify whether the subject of the notice sought is a journalist and, if it is, INTERPOL should conduct a robust article 3 assessment regarding that individual before reaching a decision on whether or not to issue the Red Notice,
9) Signatories to the Global Pledge on Media Freedom should nominate ‘regional champion’ States, for two-year terms, to spearhead efforts in the provision of safe refuge for journalists at risk.