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.


Amelia Cheatham is a T’18 Alumna and was a 2017-2018 Global Human Rights Scholar for the Institute. 

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