Targeting journalists takes a toll on ‘societies as a whole’ – UN chief

UNAMA/Fardin Waezi
A mural on a blast wall in downtown Kabul commemorates journalists killed in Afghanistan in 2016.

When journalists are targeted, “societies as a whole pay a price”, the UN chief said on Monday, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

“If we do not protect journalists, our ability to remain informed and make evidence-based decisions is severely hampered”, Secretary-General António Guterres spelled out in his message for the day.  

And when they cannot safely do their jobs, “we lose an important defense against the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that has spread online”, he added.

Free press ‘essential’ 

There were at least 21 attacks on journalists covering protests in the first half of 2020 – equal to the number of such attacks in the whole of 2017, Mr. Guterres said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted new perils for journalists and media workers, the UN chief reiterated his call for a “free press that can play its essential role in peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights”.

“Fact-based news and analysis depend on the protection and safety of journalists conducting independent reporting, rooted in the fundamental tenet: ‘journalism without fear or favour’”, he concluded.

Adverse consequences

In her message, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), maintained that through accurate reporting, journalists “bring truth to light”.

However, she noted that for too many “telling the truth comes at a price”.

While journalists are in “a unique and compelling position” to “speak truth to power”, the UNESCO chief observed that the two “do not always see eye to eye”.

Between 2010 and 2019, close to 900 journalists were killed while doing their job, according Ms. Azoulay – more than 150 in the last two years alone. 

Journalists in crosshairs

Although many have lost their lives covering conflicts, far more are being killed for investigating issues such as corruption, trafficking, political wrongdoing, human rights violations and environmental issues. 

And death is not the only risk journalists are facing.

“Attacks on the press can take the form of threats, kidnappings, arrests, imprisonments or offline and online harassment with women being targeted in particular”, the UNESCO chief elaborated. 

Preserving freedom

Even though the 2019 death toll for journalists was the lowest in a decade, the UN official pointed out that wider attacks are continuing “at an alarming rate”. 

She noted that in seven-out-of-eight killings, the perpetrators go unpunished, and asserted: “We can and should do more”.

“Journalists are essential in preserving the fundamental right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”, she explained. “When journalists are attacked with impunity, there is a breakdown in security and judicial systems for all”. 

End impunity

UNESCO commemorates the day annually on 2 November to raise awareness and highlight some of the specific risks that journalists face in their quest to uncover the truth.

“On this day, I call on…all Member States and international and non-governmental organizations to join forces to guarantee the safety of journalists and root out impunity”, said the UNESCO chief.

“Only by investigating and prosecuting crimes against media professionals can we guarantee access to information and freedom of expression”. 

Unleashing information

UNESCO also marked the day by releasing the brochure Protect Journalists, Protect the Truth.

Among other things, it revealed that most journalists were killed in countries with no armed conflict. 

And while impunity for crimes against journalists continues to prevail, in 2020, 13 per cent of cases worldwide were reported as resolved in comparison to 12 per cent in 2019, and 11 per cent in 2018.

The findings also showed that in 2019, Latin America and the Caribbean region represented 40 per cent of all killings registered worldwide, followed by the Asia and Pacific region, with 26 per cent. 

“States have an obligation to protect journalists”, and judges and prosecutors must promote “swift and effective criminal proceedings” to ensure that perpetrators of crimes against them are held accountable, upheld Ms. Azoulay.

Sierra Leone Repeals Criminal Libel Law

Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio has signed the amended law, effectively repealing the 55-year-old seditious libel section of the Public Order Act 1965 that criminalised free speech and stifled journalism in the West African nation.

President of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists: Ahmed Sahid Nasralla

 “I have always argued that the repeal will unshackle free speech, expand democratic spaces, and consolidate our democracy. It will open up the space for the growth of the media industry in the country. Professionalism will be enhanced and the best and brightest and more women, especially, will be encouraged to work their trade,” he said.

He recalled recently meeting the leadership of the Independent Media Commission, which regulates the media, and the Ministry of Information and Communications to discuss possible support to 130 registered newspapers, 165 registered radio stations, and 42 registered television stations to thrive and evolve in a country with an enviable history of pioneering journalism in West Africa.

“In its Global Expression Report 2019-2020 -The state of freedom of expression around the world, Sierra Leone has been ranked by the global organisation, Article 19, among the top five countries in Africa for facilitating and supporting freedom of expression. It is acclamation well-deserved and a moment of inspiration to aspire to do more. And that is why we are here,” he noted.

President Bio said for more than half a century, the country had a legislative and governance regime that criminalised journalism, adding that successive governments had failed to abolish the law that threatened civil liberties and had abused it over the course of half a century.

Members of the diplomatic community and stakeholders at the occasion

“But the criminal and seditious libel law was simply a bad law. The law presumed that persons arrested were guilty even before they were tried. Truth could not be a strong defence or any defence at all. With the application of the law, everybody involved in the production and dissemination of the alleged libellous publication or broadcast could be liable for summary prosecution and imprisonment.

“Enforcing criminal libel laws contravenes international democratic governance practices. It contravenes international human rights treaties, to which Sierra Leone is a signatory, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 19(3) of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. All of those international commitments condemn limitations to the right to free expression,” he said.

Minister of Information and Communication, Mohamed Rahman Swaray, said history was made on Tuesday 23rd July when the distinguished Members of Parliament, in an exemplary demonstration of patriotism repealed Part V of the Public Order Act that once criminalised libel and sedition, noting that the Criminal Libel Law being expunged will continue to expand Sierra Leone and the media landscape.

“Decades-long thirst for good governance and accountability and freedom by the media, and by extension, the citizens were accomplished by a quest for action by the President. I salute the parliamentarians on both sides of the aisle who jumped on the movement of the president for taking the bold step to repeal this old and obnoxious law. I, therefore, implore media owners, publishers, and practitioners to guard against the unfortunate invasion of their profession by imposters,” he noted.

A representative from civil society, Lawyer Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, expressed excitement at the feat and hope for the future of journalism, adding that the day should be set aside and commemorated every year as a national day of press freedom.

President of Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, Ahmed Sahid Nasralla, thanked the President for mustering the courage of a soldier to expunge the law that hindered the growth of journalism in the country. He added that the occasion was the end of a long journey in terms of legislative reforms but the beginning of a long journey for professional journalism democratic good governance.

The British High Commissioner, Simon Mustard, said Sierra Leone had taken a significant step forward in enhancing Human Rights with the repeal of the law and the enactment of the Independent Media Commission Act 2020. He emphasised that the day should be celebrated for media freedom and by all Sierra Leoneans.

A free press is ‘cornerstone’ for accountability and ‘speaking truth to power’: Guterres

At a time when disinformation and mistrust of the news media is growing, a free press is “essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights”, said the UN Secretary-General, in his message for World Press Freedom Day, marked on Friday.

No democracy is complete without access to transparent and reliable information, said António Guterres, describing unfettered journalism as “the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions, holding leaders accountable and speaking truth to power.”

This years commemorations which began on Thursday across the world, are focussing on the powerful role that good reporting plays in championing democracy and free elections, when disinformation is becoming a larger problem in even the world’s oldest and most sophisticated democratic systems.   

“Facts, not falsehoods, should guide people as they choose their representatives”, said the UN chief, noting that “while technology has transformed the ways in which we receive and share information, sometimes it is used to mislead public opinion or to fuel violence and hatred.”

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), almost 100 journalists were killed going about their work in 2018, with hundreds imprisoned. A total of 1,307 journalists were killed between 1994, and last year.

Mr. Guterres said he was “deeply troubled by the growing number of attacks and the culture of impunity…When media workers are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price.”

The head of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, said in her message for the day that it was essential to “guarantee freedom of opinion through the free exchange of ideas and information, based on factual truths.”

She said societies which value a free press, needed to “constantly vigilant. We must act together to protect the freedom of expression and safety of journalists”.

A free media is a “prerequisite” for the proper functioning of democracies, she added: “Independent journalism provides an opportunity to present facts to citizens and to form an opinion. Press freedom guarantees transparent societies where everyone can access information”.

Among the commemorative events that got underway on Thursday, were a global conference on “Media for Democracy, Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation” in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, jointly organized by the Government and the African Union Commission, together with UNESCO; and a conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut, on the same theme, organized by the local UNESCO office in partnership with the Ministry of Information.

A high-level event takes place at UN Headquarters in New York on Friday where the Secretary-General and President of the UN General Assembly are due to speak, followed by an expert roundtable

Statement by SLAJ President, Kelvin Lewis, at the Annual General Meeting 2018 in Kenema City:

We believe that our role must be to hold the government to account, and we must do this dispassionately without bias, and with the motive that it is for the good of the country.


All other protocols observed, good morning all.

For the second time in my Presidency we are being welcomed in the city of Kenema. For most SLAJ members, Kenema is a city of memories. We have had some very good times here and we have also had some very frosty SLAJ meetings and elections here.

However Mr Chairman as we recall the sweet memories we also remember those who left us this year. We recall the tragic accident which took the life of the Honourable Frank Kposowa, and in similar fashion S.U Thoronka of Global Times. In equally tragic circumstances we remember Ibrahim Samura of the New Age newspaper and Sorie Sudan Sesay, minister plenipotentiary in our London High Commission.We also very sadly mourn the loss of one of our greatest mentors, Pious Foray.

Mr Chairman permit me to request that we all stand and observe a minute’s silence in respect of these our fallen comrades.

Mr Chairman just last month SLAJ celebrated its 47th birthday. Sadly all of these 47 years and 6 more years have been spent fighting against the most repressive legislation against the practice of journalism and the existence of free expression in a political system which successive governments have characterised as democratic.

The last administration promised us for ten years that they will repeal and later said they will review the criminal and seditious libel laws. That was a promised unfilled, a demand unmet, and a manifesto commitment undelivered. Today we are again on the brink of concluding discussions on the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel laws. We can only hope that this time around it becomes a promise fulfilled.

Mr Chairman we have just come out of a tensely fought election. It is therefore imperative that we refocus our energies in making our professional contributions to the furtherance of a peaceful and prosperous Sierra Leone.This is why we have chosen the theme “Post Elections 2018: the media’s role in enhancing democracy in Sierra Leone”.

Mr Chairman we in SLAJ believe that even though our role as media practitioners is normally seen as controversial yet we must be positive in our criticism and we must above all be patriotic.

We believe that our role must be to hold the government to account, and we must do this dispassionately without bias, and with the motive that it is for the good of the country.

The media must also be peace makers. We must endeavour to bring feuding parties together and not be involved in fostering conflict even though we thrive more during conflict situations. In essence the media must not be seen to be pouring fuel into the fire but pouring water so that the fire will be extinguished.

We also believe that the media must contribute to development by bringing out the innovative ideas and inventions of the people. The media must show ways in which agriculture will thrive, new ways in which businesses can be conducted and be more profitable, and also support the promotion of a clean and healthy environment as well as contemporary conservation methods to ensure that we take care of our planet in a sustainable way such that our children will inherit a more conducive living environment.

Mr Chairman this should however not compromise our critical stance. The media must continue to speak truth to power however dangerous that would. We must continue to investigate and dig out the wrong doings in our community and above all fight corruption with every fibre in our systems.

Lastly Mr Chairman the media must set the agenda for national discourse. It is our duty to assemble the people in our different radio and TV stations much like the Greeks did in the early city states so that we can discuss ideas and innovations. It is our duty to discuss the policy initiatives of the government and ensuring the New Direction points in the right direction and take us down the right road to prosperity for all.

I thank you all for your attention.