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Defending democracy's defenders

Nov 06,2022 - Last updated at Nov 06,2022

By Alexander Schallenberg and Teresa Ribeiro

VIENNA  —  When independent journalists report on the full-scale Russian military invasion of Ukraine, they show the reality of war. They show its barbarism, its cruelty, and the humanitarian tragedies that inevitably accompany it. They provide viewers with accurate reporting on the developments on the ground and contribute to the collection of war-crimes evidence for future accountability mechanisms.

For this, journalists and media workers often pay a heavy, or even the ultimate, price. On September 19, 54-year-old Ukrainian journalist Zhanna Kyseliova was kidnapped from her home in the city of Kakhovka. On May 30, 32-year-old French journalist Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff was killed while riding with a humanitarian transport full of fleeing civilians. Two weeks earlier, Oleksii Vorontsov, an engineer of public broadcaster UA: Kherson was abducted. In mid-March, Fox News cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski and his Ukrainian colleague and journalist Oleksandra Kuvshynova were killed when their vehicle came under fire. Around the same time, Ukrainian photojournalist Maks Levin went missing and was later found killed near Kyiv.

At least eight journalists and other media workers have been killed while carrying out their duties since Russia launched its war of aggression in Ukraine in February. Many more have been wounded, abducted and mistreated.

War is an extreme situation. But journalism is not safe even in peaceful settings. Many journalists conduct their work in constant fear of threats and attacks. And make no mistake: the acute threat to media workers is not some faraway problem. Globally, including in the region of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the safety of media workers is under constant and growing pressure. Journalists face a barrage of online and offline threats, surveillance, intimidation, physical attacks, and imprisonment. Worryingly, female journalists are increasingly being targeted both as journalists and as victims of sexual and gender-based violence, especially online.

When journalists are threatened, so are our communities and societies. When those who deliver the facts to inform citizens come under attack, the foundation of society is at stake. Free, independent, and pluralistic media are as necessary to democracy as elections, parliaments and independent judges.

The pandemic showed the need for reliable information. Any major government policy needs at least a modicum of public support in a democracy. At the same time, the pandemic sparked deep mistrust of journalists, with demonstrators, online trolls, and opportunistic political actors stoking violence against the hated “mainstream media” or what they perceive as purveyors of “fake news”.

We must reverse this trend. Our democracies’ fate depends on journalists’ ability to express themselves freely and work safely. Ensuring this is not an easy task, and governments and international organisations cannot do it alone. Large societal change requires a concerted effort at all levels of society. While this effort is no doubt hard to realise, we must start somewhere by bringing more attention to the issue and bolstering support for the initiatives that support this crucial work.

Ten years ago, the United Nations endorsed the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, the first concerted effort globally to create a free and safe environment for media workers. It is time to convene again to discuss new and emerging challenges and to provide new impetus for the plan’s implementation.

To this end, the Austrian Foreign Ministry, together with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has organised a high-level conference on November 3 and 4 in Vienna. The goal is to reaffirm international commitment to the safety of journalists and to create a platform for advancing the plan’s objectives.

Twenty-five years ago, the OSCE established the Mandate of the Representative on Freedom of the Media (RFoM). The OSCE’s participating States saw the need for an independent watchdog to scrutinise and assist them in working towards the goal of true media freedom. Since then, the RFoM has resolutely defended the important contribution of media freedom to security. Countless interventions have been made where journalists were attacked for their work, media pluralism was restricted, investigative reporting was hindered, or free speech was criminalised. Many laws have been improved, and numerous safeguards have been erected.

Such efforts will be needed more than ever in the coming years. To confront the growing threats to media freedom and the safety of journalists, representatives of states and international organisations must combine forces and operationalise the outcomes of the Vienna high-level conference. We will need to review our laws on the protection of journalists and bring attackers to justice. We also need more systematic reporting related to attacks against journalists in order to keep our media safe. Only by protecting journalists can we protect freedom of the press, and our democracies.


Alexander Schallenberg is Austrian foreign minister. Teresa Ribeiro is representative on Freedom of the Media at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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