Double Jeopardized: Human Rights When Journalism Falls Under Attack

At 2:35 p.m. on Oct. 16, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia—whose résumé includedan apparently indefatigable investigating the Panama Papers investigator and criticizing high-powered government officialcritics—published a new scathingly condemned a Maltese official on her post on her blog. Thirty minutes later, she was dead. she was dead, the victim of a caTher bomb that planted inripped apart Caruana her Galizia’s car not only stole her life; by silencing an assiduous voice for the public interest, it also threatened readers’ rights to accurate information and government accountability.

While shocking, So farCaruana Galizia’s death is not outlying—32 journalists have been killed in 2017. Since 1992, a staggering 1,26058 have perished for their work. And these figures—reflecting only reported deaths with confirmed motives—likely under-emphasize the issue.


Statistics also fail to convey society-wide implications of individual reporter targeting. Press-directed brutality is a dual human rights violation, jeopardizing journalists’ lives and readers’ entitlements to information. National and international actors have launched campaigns and passed declarations to curb violence and safeguard rights, with variable effectiveness in diverse cultural and legal circumstances. Through examining stakeholder positionalities, shortcomings in reporter protections and consequences of press repression, this post will advocate a human rights approach to violence against journalists, a consequential issue demanding global action.  

Because media is a public good, numerous actors maintain overlapping and competing interestssts in press freedom and safety. These include journalists, their aggressors, institutions charged with protecting them and the citizens they serve.

Reporter-audience social media engagement aside, journalists—champions of vulnerable populations and challengers of corrupt officials—are fairly anonymous to readers. Their primary visibility as small-font overshadowed by their workbylines atop more consequential stories may facilitate public unawareness of of media-directed attacks. Violence that does breach the collective consciousness often only involves Western reporters; while ISIS’ 2014 executions of Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff rightfully galvanized societal attention, simultaneous terrorization of Middle Eastern media workers did not. Most journalists killed in 2017 covered war, politics, human rights, corruption or crime, and about 78% have been male. Yet, as Kim Wall’s death demonstrates, women and reporters covering other beats are not immune from harm.

Aggressors’ diverse identities, motivations and locales facilitate this issue’s intractability, as confronting one adversarial group may not impact others espousing separate ideals. Political organizations, military figures, criminal networks, unknown parties, governments and local residents are all suspected in reporter deaths this year. The violence isn’t even regionally constrained, as slayings have occurred in Iraq, Syria, Mexico, Yemen, Russia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia and the PhilippineThe violence has been globally distributed, with slayings in Iraq, Syria, Mexico, Yemen, Somalia, Russia, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Philippines. South Africa might be added to this list; in June, “SABC 8” journalist Suna Venter died, apparently of a stress-related heart condition, after enduring death threats, break-ins and being shot in the face.

As in Venter’s case, governments charged with protecting journalists as citizens—if not the press as an institution—may facilitate their harm. This transfers responsibility to international institutions with sometimes similarly questionable commitments to press freedoms. For example, the United Nations’ Economic Social Council drew criticism for deferring the Committee to Protect Journalists’ consultative status application seven times in four years. Still, the UN General Assembly declared May 3 “World Press Freedom Day” in 1993, and global governance structures have adopted declarations, conventions and resolutions protecting reporters.

For instance, Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 79 of Geneva Convention Additional Protocol I extended civilian status to reporters covering international armed conflicts, allowing the International Criminal Court to prosecute their attackers. Finally, Article 4(A) of the Third Geneva Convention requires adversaries treat captured war correspondents as prisoners of war.

While they affirm the press’ institutional legitimacy, these frameworks are differentially valuable in theory and practice. Affording journalists civilian protections may imply their increased safety during conflict. However, non-combatants often suffer egregious abuses, and international law constrains the ICC’s ability to realize justice with war criminal convictions. Evidently, aggressors may disregard journalists’ civilian-like status. For example, ISIS released propaganda footage of Foley’s and Sotloff’s beheadings, reducing them to diplomacy pawns and denying their rights as private individuals.

Legal and cultural diversity also constrain press protections’ efficacies. Variable community values and principles of freedom may impact groups’ respect for and adherence to the UDHR and Geneva Conventions. As true global government doesn’t exist, responsibilities of enforcing internationally-defined journalistic protections fall upon individual countries. Yet, they largely ignored a 2014 UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for action against widespread impunity. Government aggressors have particularly negligible incentives to protect reporters.

Members of the organization ‘Reporters Without Borders’ carry symbolic coffins in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, May 3, 2007, in remembrance of the journalists that where killed around the world while doing their job. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
While targeting of journalists most obviously jeopardizes their rights as humans—let alone reporters—it has broad implications. At its core, the press defends the public’s “right to education” established in UDHR Article 26 and reaffirmed by the 2011 UN Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training. It also supports educational goals described in UNDHRET, including the “maintenance of peace, security and the promotion of development and human rights.” Evidently, attacks on reporters threaten both their individual rights and those they help extend to others, making targeting of journalists a dual human rights threat.  

In April, Mexican newspaper Norte shuttered its newsroom, a casualty of the country’s press-oriented brutality. Such media outlet closures create a human rights conundrum, simultaneously saving journalists’ lives and hindering citizens’ rights to be educated on current events. Furthermore, Western news services departing violent developing countries reinforces the Global North’s historical dominance of discourse.

Cognizant of the dangers, journalists like Caruana Galizia risk their human rights in defense of society’s, making sacrifices effectively spurned by ignorant audiences. Are we doing enough to protect these seemingly-disposable public servants? Death tolls suggest not. But what—considering tremendous situational variability—can we do? My posts will seek solutions, probing the journalism-human rights intersection and considering how factors like competing actor interests and disparately-defined press freedoms impact reporter-directed violence. By complicating these relationships, I hope to elucidate approaches that dodge intractability and publicize threats to journalists, moving them—at least temporarily—from the byline to the headline.

When Fake News Threatens Real Rights: Trump’s Impact on Violence Against Journalists

“Fake news.” It’s a hashtag, a rallying cry, a string of syllables easily deployed as either a joke or a grave threat to press freedoms and journalists’ well-being. In the twelve months since his election, President Donald J. Trump has leveraged the phrase—arguably a co-campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again”—to rally supporters and ostracize the media, crafting an increasingly tenuous relationship with the latter. Such rhetoric drives an ever-unpredictable policy agenda, yet it’s difficult to fathom Trump’s administration truly championing the “mainstream media” it vehemently attacks. While his aggressive negotiating tactics may offer some hope to reporters imprisoned overseas, his presidency ultimately poses a grave threat to journalists around the globe.Assessing freedom of the press, violence against journalists and, ultimately, reporters’ human rights in the Trump era requires awareness of media protections traditionally extended by U.S. legal institutions and presidential precedent. That is, extraordinary circumstances must be contextualized through normal ones.

Perhaps most obviously, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a broadly-defined “freedom of the press.” The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld this right, deciding prior restraint—a form of governmental censorship, which Trump supports—is unconstitutional. Such restriction of the press would inevitably not only violate the media’s constitutionally-defined rights. Indeed, it would also infringe on the American public’s human right to education, affirmed by Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 2011 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training.

As altering the Constitution requires substantial bipartisan and interstate coordination, it is unlikely the current political establishment could or even would amend it to serve Trump’s anti-media agenda. According to Rep. Adam Schiff, who co-founded the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press with now-Vice President Mike Pence in 2006, protection of journalists is a Republican and Democratic issue. However, other avenues exist through which Trump might restrict the press, thereby threatening its protection and extension of human rights to the public.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence, speaks to reporters before a security briefing at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Thursday, August 10, 2017, (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Journalists in the U.S. benefit from so-called “shield laws,” which, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, safeguard them “from having to disclose to law enforcement sensitive information about their reporting, including the identity of confidential sources.” However, these protections differ state-by-state and do not exist on the federal level. Evidently, this legislative gap may facilitate symbolic, if not physical, violence against journalists through permitting them to be imprisoned for protecting their informants. Particularly concerning in the era of Trump—who has professed his proclivity for legal action against the press—such a tactic would, again, interfere with the American democratic process and infringe upon constituents’ human rights to education via the press.Despite the U.S.’s pretense of protecting journalists, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 43rd of 180 countries on its 2017 world press freedom index, citing Trump as a reason. Yet, it’s important to note that in 2014—the year before his campaign launched—the U.S. dropped 13 spots to 46th place, in part due to Obama-era recriminations against government whistleblowers. For context, South Africa, where journalist Suna Venter died after enduring government-facilitated human rights violations, was 31st on the 2017 list. Meanwhile, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has recorded 34 physical attacks against U.S. reporters in 2017.

While itself not an overt attack on journalists’ well-being, the effect of Trump’s condemnatory, “fake news” messaging—an equally vocal and indignant bloc of Americans—may truly threaten reporters’ safety and, thus, human rights. Indeed, the audience at an Aug. 22 rally in Phoenix responded to Trump’s allegations that reporters are “liars” and “sick people” by hurling insults and rocks at media personnel. According to Cecilia Vega, ABC’s Senior White House Correspondent, “this was incitement, plain and simple…It really feels like a matter of time, frankly, before someone gets hurt.” As Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post, it was “the most sustained attack any president has ever made on the press.”

On Nov. 25, David Frum echoed these sentiments, condemning a tweet from Trump’s @realDonaldTrump account that alleged, “Outside of the U.S., CNN International is still a major source of (Fake) news, and they represent our Nation to the WORLD very poorly.” Indeed, the journalist and speechwriter contended, “Trump’s words are a direct attack on those international journalists’ freedom & even safety.”

Evidently, Trump’s ability to galvanize the public—to whom reporters can only extend the right of education by risking their own human rights—against the press is a foreboding omen. The value of journalism is arguably inherent, largely independent of audience appreciation. However, if public buy-in to the president’s fake news phenomenon grows, reporters may be forced to assess whether covering the administration remains worth potentially sacrificing their rights and lives.

In addition to waging verbal warfare against the press, Trump has supported individuals perpetrating physical violence against the Fourth Estate, effectively endorsing encroachment on journalists’ human rights. After now-U.S. representative Greg Gianforte received a misdemeanor assault citation for body slamming The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs during his congressional campaign, Trump praised Gianforte’s election as a “great win.” Similarly, despite proclaiming at a 2015 rally that “I would never kill [journalists], but I do hate them,” Trump laughed when Phillippine president Rodrigo Duterte—a man who has previously vowed to assassinate wayward reportersreferred to the press as “spies”. Evidently, through this tacit support of attacks on journalists, Trump has arguably contributed to a culture of violence against the press and rejected reporters’ human rights.

This May, 24, 2017 photo released by Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office shows Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs in Bozeman, Mont. Law enforcement officials in Montana have released more than 100 pages of documents, photos and audio from their investigation into Republican House candidate Greg Gianforte who assaulted Jacobs on the eve of his election to the U.S. House. In the attack’s immediate aftermath, the Republican’s campaign portrayed Jacobs as the instigator. That version of events was contradicted audio from Jacobs and by a Fox News reporter who witnessed the attack. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to assault. (Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office via AP)
Still, Trump may offer an unlikely glimmer of hope for American journalists—like Austin Tice—held hostage overseas. As Frum has recognized, First Amendment protections of the press are invalid outside the U.S., leaving the defense of such reporters’ rights to American government officials. In less than a year, the administration has negotiated the liberation of Aya Hijazi, Caitlan Colemen and Otto Warmbier from groups in Egypt, Pakistan and North Korea, respectively. The parents of journalist Jim Foley, executed by ISIS in 2014, have called for Trump to capitalize on this diplomatic momentum and name someone to the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs position established under President Obama in 2015. Such action would signal heightened commitment by the Trump administration to defending captured Americans—perhaps including journalists—from hostile acts perpetrated against them.Ultimately, the president-press relationship is perhaps inherently complex, as reporters’ efforts to protect the public’s educational human rights may conflict with and impede governmental objectives. However, Trump’s verbal war against the “fake media” is unprecedented, providing a potential catalyst for physical attacks that deny journalists their safety and human rights. Indeed, it stands in stark contrast with President Obama’s signing of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which, according to Schiff, “placed press freedom at the center of promoting human rights and democracy” by requiring its inclusion in the State Department’s annual assessment of human rights. Trump’s reversal of Obama-era legislation and emphatic proclamation of a “fake news” narrative offer a foreboding prognosis for journalism and human rights over the next three years, perhaps making public support of the reporters who serve them all the more crucial.


When the Framework Doesn’t Work: A Call to Codify Violence Against Journalists as a Human Rights Violation

“I see no reason for recording the obvious,” 20th century photographer Edward Weston once proclaimed. His insinuation—that easily-apparent scenarios are already known and understood—is at once insightful and ingenuous. While expending effort to document the conspicuous may seem uneconomical, it permits perhaps invaluable recognition of the situation’s core truths. 

If horrified global responses to the assassinations of journalists like James Foley and Steven Sotloff are any indication, the public recognizes the injustice of violence perpetrated against media workers. Yet, as this post will explore, conversations about and codifications of human rights issues often fail to include this threat. Unrecorded and unratified by the international community as necessitating action, the obvious truth is neglected and reporters are thrust toward danger with little protection.

As defined by UNICEF, the “international human rights framework” consists of seven documents: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as “the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.”

While this declaration and these treaties all safeguard the rights of journalists as people, they offer variable additional protection from unique human rights threats reporters face as members of the press. Article 19 of the UNDHR broadly defends the activities of the media, asserting “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Such encouragement of journalistic activities and information accessibility—which are inevitably compromised when reporters are harmed—is echoed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Articles 13 and 17 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet, the internationally-accepted “human rights framework” fails to overtly acknowledge press-directed violence as a violation of reporters’ rights.

Exclusion of attacks on journalists from these documents—the last of which was signed in 1989—effectively denies their significance as singular—let alone dual—human rights violations. In the modern era of heightened press-targeting by politicians and terrorist organization propaganda arms, this is increasingly problematic. Even the most comprehensive legislation has an expiration date. The aforementioned documents have begun to reek, their omission of violence against journalists conducive to impunity in Pakistan, Russia and elsewhere.

Of course, reporters are not wholly dependent on the human rights framework, as defined by UNICEF, to proclaim the importance of combatting media-directed violence. Organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Press Institute devote themselves to this mission. International bodies like the Council of Europe release recommendations on protecting reporters, the UN observes November 2 as “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists” and the Geneva Conventions codify treatment of journalists during war.

A panel of journalists and others addresses a United Nations Security Council meeting on the protection of civilians in armed conflict and the protection of journalists, Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at U.N. headquarters. Panelists included U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, Richard Engel of NBC, Somali journalist Mustafa Haji Abdinur from Radio Simba and Agence France Presse, Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad from the Guardian, and Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll, who is vice chair of the board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
Though such actions are undoubtedly valuable, whether they effectively compensate for aforementioned inadequacies in the official human rights canon is questionable.  This uncertainty perhaps in large part stems from a lack of clarity about whether more comprehensive defense of the media in the human rights framework would actually increase journalist safety. 

Indeed, even if the human rights framework specifically referenced violence against journalists, several factors inevitably undermine international recognition of and legislative response to this issue.  First, the problem is geographically and situationally diverse.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 2017 saw reporters murdered on five continents for myriad motives.  This diversity—and thus the inexistence of a narrowly-defined, easily-targetable issue—perhaps impedes the catalysis of international responses to safeguard journalists.

While mentions of the press in the UNDHR, ICCPR and CRC are arguably too broad to offer reporters much protection, future revisers of the human rights framework must balance beneficially defining the issue with interpreting it so narrowly legislation lacks practical utility.  Though the former could enable better protection of journalists’ rights, the latter may mean reporters facing unique forms of violence are left undefended.

However, there exists an arguably greater threat to the efficacy of the human rights framework, either in its current iteration or a future version specifically noting press-directed violence: the lack of a true global governance.  Though organizations like the UN and International Criminal Court may be perceived as the legal and judicial branches of an international government, they ultimately lack authority to enforce protection of journalists and, by extension, the public’s human right to information.

The seven documents comprising the human rights framework have earned widespread support from individual nations, with each state ratifying one or more of them.  However, they are not all legally-binding; while arguably the best-known and most-revered, the UNDHR is not part of international law.  Even covenants and conventions that are included in this canon may be easily violated by entities—including governments—that terrorize journalists with little fear of retribution.

Indeed, the framework’s legal shortcomings in codifying violence against journalists as a human rights issue are augmented by procedural impediments to the prosecution of reporters’ aggressors by organizations like the ICC.  Evidently, national governments may easily shirk international norms set forth by the UNDHR and facilitate—either through participating in or failing to take action against—violation of reporters’ human rights.

In observance of International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the CPJ releases an annual “global impunity index,” intended to turn a critical international eye on states that have failed to safeguard the rights of journalists as citizens—let alone media workers—through seeking justice for their murders.  However, according to The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, “eight of the countries [on the 2017 index] have been listed each year since CPJ began the annual analysis in 2008, an indication of how entrenched impunity is in some nations.”

A human rights activist holds a poster as he pickets Russian President’s Administration building in Moscow, Russia on Thursday, March 10. 2016. The Committee to Protect Journalists is blaming Russian authorities’ inattention to anti-media hostility as enabling the attack near Chechnya that left six journalists injured. The CPJ’s statement Thursday came a day after attackers intercepted a small bus carrying activists and journalists, beat them and set the vehicle afire. The poster reads: Human rights activist Yekaterina Vanslova was attacked at Chechen border, I demand that attackers and organizers should be found. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)
So far, this post has argued the existing human rights framework largely ignores violence against media workers as a dual human rights violation, questioned whether development of a “Convention on the Rights of the Journalist” would impact reporter safety in ways non-framework efforts have not and considered impediments to effective global responses to this issue. Put succinctly, it portrays a grim prognosis for international acceptance of violence against journalists as a human rights issue. Certainly, as indicated by the plethora of stakeholders and dual implications of this rights violation, the issue is intractable. 

Yet, its current, elementary status within the human rights sphere offers definite space and direction for improvement. First, violence against journalists must be incorporated into the existing framework, despite uncertainty about the impacts of doing so. Though the inexistence of a true global government permits states tremendous leeway in interpreting resolutions and conventions, these documents are perhaps more widely-accepted—as a norm, if not a legal requirement—than declarations by groups like the CPJ.

Second, as they do for other topics referenced in framework documents—including children’s well-being and gender equity—international actors must reinforce conventions on journalists’ well-being with concerted action. Indeed, protective language is meaningless when not substantiated by subsequent follow-through.

Finally, as technological innovations and shifting political attitudes spawn new forms of journalist-directed violence, human rights framework architects must ensure their on-paper protections remain apace with real-world threats. The global community has unlimited space in which to make progress in this area; however, constructing a convention to safeguard reporters and them permitting it to become outdated does not protect human rights. Instead, it deigns them unimportant and, effectively and ironically, violates them. Thus, ultimately, there is every reason to record the obvious.


Advocacy Wanted, Secrecy Needed: The Catch-22 of Publicizing Press-Directed Violence

Austin Tice wasn’t the first journalist to drop off the grid in war-torn Syria.  And since his August 2012 disappearance, countless others have been kidnapped or killed there. 

On Nov. 2, 2016—International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists—a banner featuring Tice’s beaming face and #FreeAustinTice was affixed to the Newseum’s Pennsylvania Avenue façade.  The organization’s then-president and CEO declared, “This banner will stay in front of the Newseum until Austin Tice is released. It will be here if he is not released before Jan. 20, when the next president walks by.”

The banner has stayed.  Nine blocks away, “the next president” is waging war against the “fake media.”  On Feb. 4—the 2,001st day since Tice last contacted his family—Twitter user @Judith08 noted, “How sad that someone could be missing for over 5 years and I am just now hearing about it.  Why doesn’t this government CARE?”  Seemingly straightforward, Judith’s query highlights a central challenge to promoting journalists’ human rights: catalyzing public and political buy-in.

Indeed, advocating for and safeguarding journalists’ rights to life is a complex undertaking.  While numerous parties—including readers and the government—appear to be stakeholders, the extent to which they have embraced these roles is debatable.  Currently, the burden falls on press interest organizations and reporters themselves.  These groups demonstrate definite aptitude for activism, yet self-advocacy is plagued by challenges.  Ultimately, current societal indifference to the media’s plight is embarrassing.  Readers must not abandon journalists to bear violence’s enormous pressures alone but rather help safeguard those whose work entertains and educates them.

In this image taken from undated video posted to YouTube, American freelance journalist Austin Tice, who had been reporting for American news organizations in Syria until his disappearance in August 2012, prays in Arabic and English while blindfolded in the presence of gunmen. The Associated Press could not independently confirm the origin or the content of the clip, but the Ticefamily released a statement to several media outlets confirming it was their son in the video. Although the video footage shows a group of captors dressed and behaving like Islamic extremists, the clip lacks the customary form of jihadist videos. Previous reports have indicated that Tice is in Syrian government custody. (AP Photo)
While 15.6 million people “liked” a Feb. 6 image of reality star Kylie Jenner’s infant daughter, just over 2,500 follow the @FreeAustinTice Twitter account.  Public advocacy for press safety does occur; thousands of Malta’s 430,000 citizens protested after Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in October.  But mounting hostility toward journalists means readers—for whom the reporters behind eye-catching headlines are often afterthoughts—cannot be depended on as defenders of justice.  In 2012, social media users advocated the execution of a Saudi journalist for blasphemy. 

Contrary to Judith’s assumption, Tice’s family says the Trump administration does care about his plight and is “all in, fifth gear.”  Yet, officials’ inability to publicly divulge progress in hostage negotiations may facilitate stagnation of public interest. Government support for embattled journalists is also complicated by growing perceptions of the press as an additional adversary in conflict zones.

Thus, addressing Judith’s concerns and, more importantly, journalist-directed violence falls to a select group of international and local media-interest groups.  The Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontières  and Article 19 are among the most prominent.  Others advocate freedom of the press and protection of reporters because they deeply understand alternative realities; the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, Daniel Pearl Foundation and the 2Lives Steven Joel Sotloff Memorial Foundation were all named for murdered journalists.

Meanwhile, media worker collectives confront press-targeting and impunity at the micro level.  This is crucial, as diverse regional and cultural factors complicate efforts to address violence against journalists as a cohesive human rights violation.  Such grassroots activism includes Pakistan’s Editors for Safety, a coalition with the credo that “an attack on one media professional or organization should be considered an attack on the entire Pakistani media.”  Though recent information about the group is scarce, a 2016 article highlights its role in recovering a kidnapped reporter.  Similarly, Mexican media workers have mobilized to establish #AgendaDePeriodistas, an industry-wide initiative fighting press-directed violence.

Advocacy for journalists by journalists has several strengths.  First, the cause’s champions are personally invested in its success.  To them, reporters’ human rights are not abstract interpretations of international humanitarian law but life and death.  Defending them means avenging fallen colleagues, and journalists leverage their access to audiences to publicize their collective plight.

Second, organizations that support media understand media.  Indeed, projects like mapping attacks illustrate the value of advocates’ digital literacy.  Groups like RSF maintain dynamic Twitter feeds, adeptly disseminating accounts of reporter-directed violence to mass audiences.  Yet, whether they reach a choir of already-aware journalists or mobilize new supporters for the cause is unclear.

Evidently, media-led advocacy of colleagues’ human rights has its drawbacks.  First, by reporting their own plight, journalists compromise their objectivity, which the public often perceives as integral to the press.  Thus, while covering media worker murders preserves the industry’s “gold standard” of telling the truth, it may alienate audiences.  Instead, advocacy must rally the public as crucial stakeholders and secondary victims in the dual human rights violation of reporter-directed violence.

Second, frankly stated, journalists cannot trust their own activist coverage of this issue.  Understandably, Mexico’s culture of mass violence against the mass media has prompted industry “self-censorship, under-reporting of organized crime, and the corruption and state complicity that comes with it.”  When press freedoms are constrained—either de jure or de facto—and journalistic attempts to combat strife actually incite it, local reporters’ capacity to effectively self-advocate dwindles.

Journalists hold up photos of slain colleague Javier Valdez during a protest to call attention to the latest wave of killings of journalists, at the Angel of Independence in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Valdez, an award-winning reporter who specialized in covering drug trafficking and organized crime, was slain Monday in the northern state of Sinaloa. “In Mexico they are killing us,” wrote a dozen reporters in Spanish at the base of the Angel of Independence monument, next to the phrase “No to silence”. The messages were constructed using photo copies of the journalists who were killed in recent years. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Similarly, fellow reporters may prove unreliable allies for victimized journalists when industry pressures and constraints catalyze inter-outlet rivalries.  Indeed, Pakistani media have previously failed to report violence against competing organizations, compounding an already-dangerous environmentAccording to Zaffar Abbas, “The reason media outlets were not able to speak with one voice was their commercial interests, and this lack of unity had become a huge problem for the safety of journalists.” 

Indeed, the modern mediascape’s economic tensions fuel reporter-directed violence, facilitate impunity for aggressors and plague human rights campaigns.  As foreign bureau budgets dry up, news organizations increasingly rely on “freelancers.”  While often glamorized, these staples of modern conflict zones are often ill-equipped—experientially, materially and financially—and grossly undercompensated.  In service to society, they may pay the ultimate price; of the 115 journalists killed in Syria since 2011, 44 were freelancers, CPJ says.

Such statistics force news organizations to weigh protecting their reporters’ lives with informing their readers.  Indeed, several major outlets have stopped accepting freelance work from Syria.  Human rights are, in theory, indivisible; one cannot suppress some rights to promote others.  Yet, practice complicates this concept.  Defense of journalists’ rights to life and full realization of the public’s right to education are arguably inversely-correlated; reporters putting themselves in harm’s way puts papers on readers’ stoops.

Counter intuitively, promoting both sets of rights requires further entangling the two groups.  A fiercely-felt ethos of public service is already at journalism’s core.  Now we must drag press-directed violence into even the periphery of public awareness.  Indeed, readers are obligated to partner with existent advocacy groups to safeguard journalists as fellow humans, exercising an “ethos of press service.”  And, as Judith’s dejection and frustration indicate, they likely care—if they know about it.

Yet, advocacy is not always altruistic and public awareness can be perilous; as outlets learned from Daniel Pearl’s 2002 kidnapping and murder, hostages may have a better shot at escaping alive without a spot on Larry King Live.  Thus, though justice is crucial, it’s equally important to consider how this is best achieved.  In what circumstances can audience involvement beneficially bolster existent advocacy?  And when, like Tice’s whereabouts, are these efforts best hidden from public view?

Reporters, Rohingya and Regionalism: Myanmar’s Emerging and Intractable Triple Human Rights Threat

“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”  Issued partially in jest, Mahatma Ghandi’s declaration echoes serious attitudes of states, non-governmental groups and publics around the globe.  Journalists, who ferret out the world’s sordid secrets, deserve some reciprocal skepticism from society.  They also deserve their human rights.Temporal limitlessness and contextual diversity make mitigating attacks on the press an intractable challenge.  Reporters chase conflict; after facing human rights abuse in one strife-ridden region, they scurry to cover the next treacherous war zone.  Of course, not all media-directed violence occurs in battle.  Diverse stakeholders threaten reporters in unique ways.  In the Philippines and the U.S., reporters face verbal attacks by chief executives.  In Mexico, governmental actors order their executions.  In the Middle East, militant groups murder media workers with impunity.No strategy can successfully neutralize every threat to the press.  Examining the case of two Reuters reporters recently detained in Myanmar indicates how regional circumstances, actor agendas and legal loopholes uniquely conspire to endanger human rights and journalists’ lives. 

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, center, talks to journalists as he leaves the court after his trial Wednesday, March 7, 2018, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. Trial hearing resumed for two Reuters journalists charged of violating state secrets. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 for acquiring “important secret papers” from two policemen. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)
Last December, authorities in Yangon arrested Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for “illegally acquir[ing] information with the intention to share it with foreign media” in violation of Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.  Though all cases of reporter-directed violence are dual human rights threats, this situation’s implications are particularly severe.  It may be a triple human rights threat, affecting the lives of a marginalized ethnic group, the rights of the public to information and the freedoms of journalists.First, the reporters were apparently targeted for investigating the slaughter of Muslim Rohingya in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar.  Their report, published in February, describes the executions of 10 men by government soldiers and civilians.  Rohingya ethnic cleansing threatens—if it has not already—to devolve into genocide.  Though the Genocide Convention requires the international community to prevent such atrocities, it has done relatively little.Regional responses to the resultant refugee crisis may be more alarming than this inaction.  Bangladesh has denied Rohingya entry at its border with Myanmar, maintained they “illegally infiltrated” its territory and suggested housing refugees on a “remote, flood-prone island.”  Both Bangladesh and Thailand have proven hotbeds for trafficking of vulnerable Rohingya women; desperate to escape persecution, they become victims of transnational slavery networks.  Given global and regional governance failures, reporters like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—who catalyze civil society awareness and action—are crucial human rights defenders. 

Second, the Official Secrets Act, enacted during British colonial rule, weaponizes knowledge.  It makes distributing information—journalists’ central mission—criminal.   This impedes media protection of the public’s right to knowledge.  In Myanmar, “80 to 90 percent of government documents were considered confidential or secret under the Official Secrets Act,” according to press advocate U Myint Kyaw.  Regional neighbors Pakistan, India, Singapore and Malaysia—also former British colonies—have similar legislation.  Thus, journalists throughout Asia are susceptible to arrest for what they know.

Third, of course, this situation violates Wa Lone’s and Kyaw Soe Oo’s human rights.  Denied pre-trial bail, they face sentences of up to 14 years.  As if being detained for illuminating ethnic cleansing was not sufficiently egregious, they may sustain further abuse in custody.  A 2016 Reuters investigation found systematic mistreatment, including forced labor and corporal punishment, in Myanmar’s prison camps.

A Rohingya refugee Muslim who was staying in no-man’s land at Bandarban between Myanmar and Bangladesh border, sits with her belongings after arriving at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar say some of them had returned home several times over past decades, and they’re in no mood to repatriate again. Although, Myanmar says it’s ready for a gradual repatriation of Muslim Rohingya refugees chased out by the Buddhist-majority country’s military. More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslims are now living in sprawling and squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
These human rights concerns are embedded in a web of stakeholder interests and regional factors.  To start, Myanmar’s government appears intent on masking all levels of abuse.  Despite replacing a general who oversaw anti-Rohingya operations, the military “exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities” in November.  It also labeled forced displacement of Rohingya—a human rights violation—a crucial security measure.  This is particularly concerning given Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  In a region mired in abuses and with neighboring states on the verge of dictatorship, she should be a valuable force for justice.  Instead, her relative silence on Rohingya atrocities is deafening.Myanmar has a checkered past regarding press freedoms.  According to CNN, “an anti-defamation clause in [Malaysia’s] telecommunications law [is] often used to quash opposition voices” and usually results in convictions.  Nearby Cambodia and the Philippines, where authorities have shuttered media outlets and advocated killing reporters, are unlikely to pressure change.  The government’s press-directed antagonism is clear in its potential framing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, invocation of the Official Secrets Act and refusal of bond before a courtroom audience of foreign journalists and officials.The Western international political community has strongly defended Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.  Its interests—freedom of the press and defense of human rights—directly oppose Myanmar’s.  Surprisingly, the latter stakeholder may actually have the upper hand.  The United Nations’ charter emphasizes a principle of non-intervention, and human rights theory is closely tied to the idea of self-determination.  Citing the Genocide Convention, regional and international actors could forcefully oppose Rohingya genocide, if only—like Bangladesh—to avoid responsibility for refugees.  However, they are largely unable, if not unwilling, to intervene in the country’s press-directed violence.  Framing the arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo as a human rights issue has little impact. 

Myanmar ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to education.  However, it is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression.  Thus, though the government recognizes the effect of journalism—education—as a human right, it does not recognize the act itself as one.  Knowledge is protected but collecting it is not.  Despite regional human rights abuse, support for these covenants is theoretically high across Southeast Asia.  Still, this has little—if any—practical impact within sovereign Myanmar.

A third non-victim stakeholder group is the journalism community.  Numerous media groups have spoken out in support of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.  A statement by 50 Pulitzer Prize winners called the men “brave, principled and professional journalists who were working in the public interest and were jailed simply for doing their jobs.”  Meanwhile, press associations across Asia launched a Change.org petition with over 40,000 signatures.

Unfortunately, an attack on one reporter is an assault on every journalist.  These arrests reinforce the acceptability of media-directed violence in Myanmar, across Southeast Asia and around the world.  By legalizing state press-targeting, unjust Official Secrets Acts fuel a regional culture of impunity for violating journalists’ human rights.  Between 2012 and 2014, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance noted 100 or more instances in which abusers faced no repercussions.

Ultimately, the fates of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo lie with stakeholders either unable or unwilling to act in their favor.  Human rights law constrains the international political community’s intervening abilities.  This may matter little to Myanmar’s abusive regional neighbors, which may support its actions.  The media is unlikely to earn state respect in negotiations.  Finally, public beneficiaries of this journalism may be similarly terrorized by Myanmar’s government or complicit in its aggression.  Both military and civilians are slaughtering Rohingya and benefit from suppression of media coverage.

As in most cases of press-directed violence, complex contextual factors—including regional attitudes, stakeholder interests and legal loopholes—jeopardize human rights promotion.  Yet, this remains as crucial as ever, particularly given the triple threat of Wa Lone’s and Kyaw Soe Oo’s detainment.

Framing Journalists for Their Own Abuse: The Threats of Alternative Approaches to Press-Directed Violence

Imagine you’ve been tapped to appear on a special, social justice-themed episode of “Family Feud.”  “Name a human rights issue,” Steve Harvey declares.  Almost certainly, the survey will not say “violence against journalists.”  Press-directed antagonism is a mere blip on the public’s radar, especially when the victims are non-Western reporters.  Even aware news audiences may not consider this brutality through a human rights lens.Yet, three alternative frameworks—capability, utilitarianism and what I’ll call “mistaken identity”—prove problematic.  They may lead critics to victim-blame the media, prioritize the public’s rights to knowledge over the press’ rights to life and deny journalists’ altruistic intents.  Indeed, their “moral” arguments produce immoral effects under the unique circumstances of violence against the press.  Ultimately, they reinforce the value—if not necessity—of a human rights approach to reporter-directed antagonism.First, the capability approach holds that “freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance and…[should] be understood in terms of people’s capabilities.”  This definition immediately suggests the framework’s unsuitability for evaluating brutality against reporters.  Indeed, it may run counter to a common journalistic tendency: self-sacrifice in pursuit of honest and comprehensive coverage.According to legendary reporter Marie Colvin, partially blinded by shrapnel in Sri Lanka and later killed in Syria, “Simply: there’s no way to cover war properly without risk…Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that.”  If journalists believe reporting the truth is of greater “moral importance” than “freedom to achieve well-being,” is the capability framework capable of defending them?  Perhaps not.  Citing the approach, media critics might argue reporters deserve the repercussions of spurning safety. 


Turkish journalists holding photographs of their colleagues who lost their lives in Syria recently, from left, Anthony Shadid, Remi Ochlik and Marie Colvin, stage a protest outside the Syrian embassy in Ankara, Turkey, Friday, Feb. 24, 2012. They protested against the Syrian regime and called on the U.N. and democratic countries to protect journalists working in Syria.(AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)
Imagine you’ve been tapped to appear on a special, social justice-themed episode of “Family Feud.”  “Name a human rights issue,” Steve Harvey declares.  Almost certainly, the survey will not say “violence against journalists.”  Press-directed antagonism is a mere blip on the public’s radar, especially when the victims are non-Western reporters.  Even aware news audiences may not consider this brutality through a human rights lens.Yet, three alternative frameworks—capability, utilitarianism and what I’ll call “mistaken identity”—prove problematic.  They may lead critics to victim-blame the media, prioritize the public’s rights to knowledge over the press’ rights to life and deny journalists’ altruistic intents.  Indeed, their “moral” arguments produce immoral effects under the unique circumstances of violence against the press.  Ultimately, they reinforce the value—if not necessity—of a human rights approach to reporter-directed antagonism.First, the capability approach holds that “freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance and…[should] be understood in terms of people’s capabilities.”  This definition immediately suggests the framework’s unsuitability for evaluating brutality against reporters.  Indeed, it may run counter to a common journalistic tendency: self-sacrifice in pursuit of honest and comprehensive coverage.According to legendary reporter Marie Colvin, partially blinded by shrapnel in Sri Lanka and later killed in Syria, “Simply: there’s no way to cover war properly without risk…Covering a war means going into places torn by chaos, destruction, death and pain, and trying to bear witness to that.”  If journalists believe reporting the truth is of greater “moral importance” than “freedom to achieve well-being,” is the capability framework capable of defending them?  Perhaps not.  Citing the approach, media critics might argue reporters deserve the repercussions of spurning safety. 

Meesha Shafi, a member of Pakistani pop group ‘Overload’ perform during a musical concert in Islamabad, Pakistan on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. The musical concert organized by U.S. Embassy in Pakistan and Pakistan National Council of Arts to pay tribute to slain American journalist Daniel Pearl. Pearl was kidnapped and slain while researching a story on Islamic militancy in Karachi in 2002. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)
Not dissimilarly, President Donald Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric fuels societal distrust of allegedly immoral reporters.  Losing the confidence of readers—for whom they risk their lives—robs media workers of their most natural advocates.  British reporter Alastair Campbell has warned of the threats diminishing audience support pose, arguing “The bad news for journalists today is that the media, however seriously people who are in the public eye take it, is not taken as seriously as it once was by the public.”“Mistaken identity” frameworks may even transform the public into one of the press’ most ardent enemies.  Indeed, in January, Michigan man Brandon Griesemer made multiple threats against CNN.  His “mistaken identity” perception of journalism was clear.  “Fake news,” Griesemer said in one phone call.  “I’m coming to gun you all down.”Ultimately, human rights-based approaches easily inspire criticism when we fail to analyze them alongside other frameworks.  Yet, for all of their shortcomings—including vague theoretical protections and inadequate practical applications—they remain the most effective way to interpret and address press-directed antagonism.  Evaluating the capability, utilitarianism and “mistaken identity” frameworks makes this clear.Indeed, these alternatives simply do not hold up under the unique moral dynamics of brutality against the media.  They augment antagonism and assign journalists complicity in the abuse they endure.  In contrast, rights-based approaches promote justice, dignity and peace, much like the reporters they can help protect.  Name a human rights issue?  My survey says “violence against journalists.”