Jim Boumelha, on International Day of Human Rights: "We must start holding impunity states responsible for negligence"

Coinciding with the International Day of Human Rights, which is celebrated each 10 December, the President of the International Federation of Journalists (FIJ), Jim Boumelha,  reflected from Belfast on the interconnection between journalism and human rights, the performance and final purpose of journalists, the accountability of governments in the protection of these workers , the new challenges of democratic societies and the future of journalism in this new digital era.

1. How interconnected are journalism and human rights?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), since its adoption by the UN General Assembly in 1948, represents the first global expression of rights, in particular article 19 that spells out the right to freedom of opinion and expression. While not a treaty itself, the Declaration is believed to form part of customary international law, so there is an organic link between the two as press freedom is part the general basket of human rights.

There are two main points where the worlds of media and human rights cross each other’s paths. The first is the huge overlap of subject matter between the two areas. Much of reporting concerns matters that directly or indirectly have a human rights content. The second is that freedom of the media is itself a human right. In general terms, media are regarded as one of the mechanisms by which citizens hold their governments to account.

Both journalists and human rights activists have good reason to make common cause in defense of viable information and independent journalism. When the language of human rights started permeating international relations in the 90s, the media too began to talk extensively of human rights. Today you will find that an increasing number of journalists are attacked and even imprisoned because of their reporting of governments’ lack of respect for human rights.

2. Many human rights advocates say that media do not report human rights issues enough, or have a superficial grasp of human rights. How should journalists’ performance be judged?

In many instances the role of journalists is not well understood. In order to make sense of the work of journalists, one needs to look at how they see their tasks, what pressures are brought to bear on them and, perhaps, to understand better what makes news and what is meant by ‘good’ reporting on human rights issues. Many of these aspects remain outside the reach of the wider public.

This is hardly surprising as this process is often complex, in particular the way governments continuously innovate their presentations and media sharpen its reaction to it. Governments are concerned, on the one hand, with handling stories where they are themselves violators, and, on the other, with managing human rights information about other governments which are their allies or client states, as well as their enemies or rogue states – along the lines of “are you with us or against us” dichotomy.

This interaction has benefits in that it draws international attention to human rights abuses, and shape public opinion in relation to human rights. Besides it is no longer sufficient for individual journalists to be alert. Reporting human rights requires a more considered response, including an approach by editors institutionally.

Journalists today have to fight hard to protect their independence when the world around them calls for their unquestioning allegiance to many causes, in particular the struggle against violations of human rights. While journalists can do good, it is not their purpose. Many journalists may well take up respect for human rights, but few would wish to be told to follow a particular policy or strategy.

3. Do you think that governments do enough to persecute journalists’ killers? What should for instance institutions like the United Nations or the UNESCO do in this regard?

The continuing high level of media deaths cries out for more action by international institutions such as the United Nations to force governments to implement international law on the safety of journalists. UNESCO, the UN specialised agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression, agrees with us that the question of the safety of journalists and how to combat impunity is a fundamental pre-requisite for achieving freedom of expression and democracy.

It has at its disposal a glut of tools and instruments, including their last Plan of Action, which make it clear that journalists, including embedded journalists, are civilians and must therefore be protected as such. But today's sad reality is that not many journalists can rely on international institutions to defend their rights when they disappear or are jailed or murdered. The record of governments in too many states is appalling. Impunity states should have to face a persistent international campaign of publicity. Not once a year in a report, but every time they acquiesce or sanction, or turn a blind eye on the murder of a journalist.

The very fact that a government is sensitive is, of course, the point. The neuralgic nerve should be pressed hard. Effectively this will have to be done by us trade unions and NGOs. We must start holding impunity states responsible for their negligence and, in many cases, complicity.

4. How can journalists contribute to democratic societies?

Most journalists try hard to strive for thoughtfulness and decency in their work, even if many have not set up themselves the task of writing the first draft of history or worry about the grand mission of their profession. Their instincts remain strong and apply, despite poor working conditions and constant pressure from advertisers, sponsors, and political and corporate lobbyists – good journalism survives even in the unlikeliest of corners. The scale of rights-based reporting on core human rights issues – torture, extra¬judicial killings, child rights, people trafficking and asylum seekers, racism and intolerance — testifies to the fact that what was an uncertain relationship between media and the human rights community is now continuously evolving in the same way that the wider political and human rights agendas are merging into a new strategic undertaking that commands a new approach from journalists and media.

Their bosses, on the other hand, spend less and less money on jobs, on training their staff and on investigative journalism. Driven by new technologies and the lure of lucrative mass markets, media owners are guilty of upsetting the balance of interest between journalism as an instrument of democracy and its exploitation as a tradable commodity. As a result, important stories – such as the consequence of globalisation – are missed or not adequately reported. In some cases, they don’t think twice before sidelining principles of press freedom and human rights when it suits them, like Murdoch’s News Corporation and AOL Time Warner did when they tried to reach a deal with China.

5. To what extent are new information trends such as the new digital era impacting on the quality of media presentation of human rights issues?

In the wake of digital editing, text messages and dot¬com journalism, the world of journalism is today very different from what it was, even ten or fifteen years ago. Most journalists in the developed world and elsewhere now work in a converged media environment. They file stories, often simultaneously, for newspapers, audiovisual and online media; they have become multiskilled actors in a new media landscape that leaves little time or space for ethical reflection. As a result there is a great deal of anxiety within journalism over the erosion of quality of media content in recent years.

The ability of media, thanks to technological advances, to beam radio or television programmes to smaller audiences at an affordable cost, combined with the growth of a highly diverse consumer and information culture, has created a lively market for alternative news sources. These alternatives have yet to established a record of influence. The mainstream media deal with their stories in a variety of ways – when they are weak they are ignored, and when they are interesting they are borrowed and stolen. But as they start delivering a reliable product to a stable audience, they can make an impact. Let’s not forget that human rights NGOs are themselves an important source of alternative news.

6. With an increasingly large number of human rights organisations feeding the press with information, how do journalists avoid bias and manipulation?

In recent years, human rights have become more newsworthy than it was. Amnesty International, for example, has found a distinct media voice and is so well established that when it release information it often make news. In response, journalists struggle to make sense out of the chaos of events by feeding their readers and listeners an accurate and reliable picture. Any element of bias depends very much on the identity of the media themselves. But on the whole, journalists take their cues from the shared professional tradition that operates within journalism. For journalists working within repressive regimes, human rights abuse is closer to home and on the whole these journalists see the value of journalistic activism and advocacy. Of course, advocacy journalism is not a professional crime and may even have its place in independent media, except when its agenda is dictated by interested parties outside journalism.


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The IFJ represents more than 600 000 journalists in 134 countries