Senators assessing human rights progress hear press freedom under serious threat

2018.12.05

Martin O'Hanlon, Ben Makuch CWA Canada President Martin O'Hanlon, left, with VICE Media reporter Ben Makuch, who has been ordered by the Supreme Court of Canada to hand over materials he gathered about an alleged terrorist.

Statement by CWA Canada President Martin O’Hanlon on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) to the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights:

Thank you for inviting me to speak about the rights of journalists as you assess progress in standing up for equality, justice and human dignity in 2018 — the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I wish I had good news to report, but I’m sad to say that, for journalists, things are getting worse.

Freedom of expression and more specifically, freedom of the press, are under serious threat around the globe.

We’ve long watched governments, from Saudi Arabia to Russia to Cuba, restricting what journalists can report. But now, many serial offenders like China are cracking down even harder, using technology to quash dissent and to block the sharing of information on social media.

Even more troubling, we’ve seen the rise of demagogues and ultra-conservative parties in formerly progressive countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Philippines, who are openly hostile to the media. Turkey is now the world’s leading jailer of journalists with hundreds being held on trumped-up charges – and many given long jail sentences.

And then there’s the U.S. where the ugliness of Trump and his Republican enablers are a threat to both freedom of the press and democracy.

Let’s be clear: Journalism is a pillar of democracy and attacks on the media are attacks on our democratic systems.

It is vital that progressive, moderate, responsible countries like Canada speak out publicly whenever freedom of the press is under attack, that we pressure other countries diplomatically to do better, and that we punish the worst offenders, through economic sanctions if necessary.

Restricting journalists’ rights is one thing, but in many countries, the situation is even more dire.

From 2012 to 2016, at least 530 journalists were killed according to UNESCO. And nine out of 10 cases remain unpunished. Impunity reigns.

Hundreds of journalists are imprisoned, and on a daily basis, media workers are attacked, beaten, detained, harassed, and threatened.

There are growing threats to digital safety with cyber-attacks, hacking, and online harassment – especially of women journalists – all creating a safety crisis for news professionals.

Behind every statistic is also human tragedy – a death, a kidnapping, a family left without a mother, father, a brother or sister. Behind every statistic is a country or community left without information, denied the right to be properly informed.

It is this, and a growing frustration with a lack of action and often a lack of will to tackle the crisis of impunity, which has driven the IFJ to call for an international Convention on the Safety of Journalists and Media Professionals. Such a convention would provide a codification of all international rules that apply to journalists in one instrument, bringing together both human rights and humanitarian law provisions.

It would include:

  • The obligation to protect journalists against attacks on their life, arbitrary arrest, violence and intimidation campaigns.
  • The obligation to protect against forced disappearances and kidnapping (by state agents or private actors).
  • The obligation to carry out effective investigations into alleged interferences and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  • In the context of armed conflict, the obligation to treat media workers and facilities as civilians (and hence illegitimate targets) and to conduct military operations with due diligence.

The process could begin via a declaration of principles contained in a UN General Assembly resolution. Although non-binding, it would clarify the law, express the determination of the international community to counter impunity for attacks against journalists, and lay the foundations for the adoption of a binding instrument in future. In fact, all UN sectoral conventions on the rights of women, children, disabled people, have been preceded by General Assembly declarations.

We have asked the Government of Canada to declare support for the convention and I hope we will have the support of this committee and the Senate at large.

I know we’re here to talk about the international climate, but I must make one mention of Canada where the situation for journalists is more benign but still worrying.

Earlier this year, we saw Radio-Canada reporter Antoine Trépanier arrested by Gatineau police simply for doing his job and asking questions – based on a frivolous harassment complaint by someone who didn’t like what he was reporting. Also this year, in a case that’s headed to the Supreme Court of Canada, a Quebec judge at a corruption trial ordered Radio-Canada journalist Marie-Maude Denis to reveal her confidential sources in an investigation into the construction industry.

And of course, the Supreme Court ruled just last week that VICE Media reporter Ben Makuch must hand over material he gathered about an accused ISIS fighter.

Again, let’s be clear: the media is not, nor should it ever be, an arm of the state. As journalists, we must fight any attempt by anyone, especially authorities, to interfere with freedom of the press.

As a result, our union will now be pushing the federal government to bolster the Journalistic Source Protection Act to better protect journalists’ sources.

Martin O’Hanlon
President, CWA Canada, The Media Union
Président, SCA Canada, Le syndicate des médias

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