By Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Thank you, Foreign Minister Linkevicius, for chairing this session and for Lithuania’s consistent effort to integrate the issue of press freedom – and threats to it – across the work we do at the Council. I also want to thank our guest briefers, Mr. Deloire and Ms. Pearl, for your powerful words today, and for the tremendous work that you are doing to advance this most critical cause. Ms. Pearl, you have been a tremendous force for good in the world. As a mother and a former journalist I’m in awe of your strength. And a special thanks to your son Adam for being here today. You’re the best reminder – he’s paying attention – you’re the best reminder we have for why we need to do more to protect journalists, so thank you for being here.
Nearly two years ago, in July 2013, when the Council last met to discuss the issue of protection of journalists, the United States raised the case of Mazen Darwish, the head of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. Darwish had been held incommunicado since February 2012, when he was detained by regime officials along with several colleagues. Today, he remains behind bars along with two fellow staff members, Hani Al-Zantani and Hussein Ghrer. On May 13th, earlier this month, their trial was suspended for the 24th time – little surprise given that their only “crime” was to report the truth about the Assad regime’s atrocities. Since the beginning of this month, the whereabouts of the three men have been unknown.
Mazen’s brave wife, Yara Badr, who has lead the Center since his arrest and campaigned all around the globe for his release, is here with us in the chamber today. Thank you, Yara, for all that you’re doing.
Darwish’s case exemplifies the first of three challenges I want to highlight today with respect to the protection of journalists: How does the international community protect journalists from parties that deliberately target them? In the four-plus years since the Syrian conflict began, more than 80 journalists have been killed, and at least 90 more abducted, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, CPJ. Countless more have been threatened, attacked, wounded, barrel-bombed or disappeared.
They have been targeted by both the Assad regime and violent extremist groups like ISIL, whose grotesque executions of journalists – alongside humanitarian aid workers, foreign soldiers, and people of different religions or political beliefs – seem aimed both at using their victims’ suffering as a recruiting tool, and at dissuading other journalists from covering the conflict. Unfortunately, their tactics seem to be working, as the videos of their executions are widely disseminated on social media, while both international and national coverage of the Syrian conflict itself has declined dramatically.
What the Assad regime, ISIL, and other State and non-State actors like them that target journalists have in common is that they do not want people to see them for what they really are – whether that is a regime willing to torture, bomb, gas, and starve its people in order to hold onto power, or a group masquerading as religious that routinely desecrates the basic dignity of human beings. That is why the Mazen Darwishes, James Foleys and Daniel Pearls of the world are so dangerous to these groups and governments. Their reporting strips away the façade and shows us what lies beneath.
This brings me to the second challenge: How do we protect journalists and, more broadly, press freedoms, in situations in which violence is escalating and there is a risk of mass atrocities? This is important, as we know that a robust press can play a key role in helping prevent crises from metastasizing into full-blown conflicts and mitigating the conditions in which grave human rights violations tend to occur.
We are seeing this right now in Burundi. After the ruling party’s announcement of the candidacy of President Nkurunziza for what would be his third term, despite the explicit two-term limit set by the Arusha Agreement, there were large public protests. The government responded by shuttering the country’s most important media outlets.
Not long after members of the military attempted to oust the Nkurunziza government, the offices and equipment of at least four independent radio stations – which have generally been critical of the Nkurunziza government – were attacked and their equipment destroyed.
Since the unlawful attempt to seize power was quashed, several independent journalists report being told that they are on a list of people to be arrested, and many more reportedly have been threatened with death, torture, and disappearance, leading them to go into hiding. One Burundian journalist said in an interview, “no journalists feel safe enough to look for information.” That is right now, in Burundi.
Even in countries that are not experiencing conflicts or at imminent risk of sliding into unrest, the erosion of press freedoms is often a harbinger of the rolling back of human rights that are critical to healthy democracies. This is the third challenge I’d like to raise: How do we – and by we I mean the UN, bodies such as the Security Council, and our individual Member States – push back against the erosion of press freedoms by governments intent on silencing critical voices and other key outlets of free expression?
Look to any region, and you will see alarming warning signs of how the crackdown on press freedom is coupled with a broader crackdown on civil and political rights. Take Ethiopia, where nine journalists, six of them bloggers from the collective Zone 9, which covers political and social news, have been imprisoned since April 2014 under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. After 20 administrative hearings, their trial finally began on March 30th. If convicted under the Proclamation, they could face up to more than a dozen years in prison.
Take Azerbaijan, where Khadija Ismayilova, a contributor to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty’s Azerbaijani Service, remains incarcerated on charges widely viewed as politically motivated. Ismayilova is known for her reporting on corruption.
After arresting her in December 2014 on charges of inciting a man to commit suicide, authorities raided RFE/RL’s Baku office, interrogated its staff, confiscated reporting notes, and sealed the newsroom. New charges have been added to Ismayilova’s case as she awaits her trial, including embezzlement, illegal business, and abuse of power.
It is worth noting that all around the world, for every individual or group targeted through prosecution, attacks and threats, there are countless more impacted – people who, seeing the risks, either begin to self-censor, go into hiding, or flee the countries that so desperately need their independent voices.
Given the critical importance of press freedoms in advancing so many of the goals of this Council, let me make four recommendations in closing as to how we can meet these challenges.
First, we must condemn the governments and non-State actors that attack journalists, as well as the overly restrictive laws and regulations that undermine their freedom. It is much easier to prevent these spaces from closing than it is to fight to reopen them.
Second, we must give the journalists the tools they need to protect themselves, particularly working in conflict zones and repressive societies. The $100 million that the United States has invested in training more than 10,000 at-risk journalists and human rights defenders in digital safety, and in providing them with anti-censorship tools, is one example. Another is the training provided by civil society groups such as the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, whose director in Iraq, Ammar al-Shahbander, was killed by a car bomb on May 2nd – a devastating loss for his family, the community of journalists he mentored, and his nation.
Third, we can be sure that the people who attack journalists are actually held accountable for their crimes. The failure to effectively investigate and prosecute these crimes sends a clear message to perpetrators that they can continue to commit these crimes without any consequences.
Fourth, and finally, we can help create programs to protect journalists operating in conflict zones, particularly those targeted for their work. Colombia shows how this can be done. The National Protection Unit established by the government in 2011 is empowered to protect nineteen vulnerable groups, including journalists and human rights defenders. As of last year, more than 80 journalists – this is extraordinary – were receiving protection measures ranging from cell phones and transport subsidies to bodyguards and armored cars. The program has an annual budget of $160 million, which speaks to Colombia’s commitment to protecting these individuals, and the country’s recognition of the crucial role that these groups play.
One of the journalists who has received protection is Jineth Bedoya Lima. In 2000, when Bedoya was 26 years old, she was heading into one of the country’s most dangerous prisons to report on paramilitary groups when she was abducted, drugged, and driven to a hideout, where she was raped and beaten by three men. As they were abusing her, one of her captors told her, “We are sending a message to the press in Colombia.” Later, they left Bedoya, bound, by a trash dump. She fled the country soon after.
Today, Bedoya is back in Colombia, reporting stories with the protection of bodyguards from Colombia’s unit. She still feels fear, but she perseveres, driven by a commitment to tell the stories that otherwise would go untold. And that includes her own. In speaking out about her own experience, Bedoya has helped make the serious – and seriously underreported – problem of sexual assault in Colombia’s long-running conflict more visible. And she has become a leading advocate of accountability, even as several of her own attackers continue to roam free. Bedoya also led a country-wide campaign to establish a National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence, which, last year, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, agreed to establish. Colombia just honored the day for the first time two days ago, on Monday, May 25th.
There are few greater living testaments to the value of protecting journalists than Bedoya’s story. We must not allow voices like hers to be silenced. Thank you.