Research and impact | By John Stevenson

City Impact: Press protection in a hostile environment

The City Law School’s Dr Carmen Draghici has authored a Draft International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists and Other Media Professionals.

The shooting of Lyra McKee in Northern Ireland in April 2019 and the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in October 2018 rank among recent high-profile examples of fatal attacks on journalists.


Worryingly, 94 journalists and media workers died as a result of bombings, targeted killings and cross-fire incidents in 2018 according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a Brussels-based journalist and media worker advocacy group. The figure, up from 82 in 2017, includes 84 journalists, camera persons, technicians and drivers.


Journalism has become one of the world’s most hazardous professions and the statistics serve to underscore the dangerous operating environment in which members of the Fourth Estate have to carry out their work in the 21st century.


Journalists are also frequently harassed, physically assaulted or imprisoned without charge in various countries.


American President, Donald Trump, has contributed to hostilities by repeatedly singling out certain established US media outlets as “enemies of the people”.


Reader in Law in The City Law School, Dr Carmen Draghici, has been working alongside media law academics and international journalist associations for over a decade.


Commissioned by the IFJ, she recently authored a Draft International Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists and Other Media Professionals.

In October 2018, she was part of a mission in which the IFJ met country representatives at United Nations headquarters in New York to intensify the campaign for the adoption of the Draft Convention.


Dr Draghici began the deep dive into research on the international protection of journalists in 2010. She maintains that media workers require a category-specific legal solution given the uniqueness of their situation when compared to other individuals exercising free speech and to other civilians in times of war. She explains:


“Journalists reporting from conflict zones face greater risks compared to other civilians. First, they do not flee conflict, they seek it out. Secondly, there is a strategic advantage to be gained from targeting the media for those who wish to prevent international scrutiny over conflict. The exercise of freedom of expression by media professionals is distinct. They are involved in the circulation of information and ideas on a regular basis with a much wider impact on mass audiences. They have greater resources in terms of collecting information, enjoy greater credibility than occasional witnesses sharing images on social media platforms and their outputs are actively sought out by the public. All of this provides greater incentive to censor unfavourable speech by targeting professional journalists.”


How much of a challenge will it be to ensure the enforcement of a Convention for journalists operating across more than 100 UN member states, with their individual constitutional and cultural disparities?


The Draft Convention proposes a dedicated monitoring body of independent experts, a Committee for the Safety of Journalists, rather than State representatives, according to a well-established model (jurists who do not represent national interests and do not take instructions from governments).  Similar committees were established under several UN conventions (e.g. UN Human Rights Committee and UN Committee Against Torture).


Dr Draghici envisages that the Committee “would have the mandatory competence to receive individual complaints, conduct in loco inquiries and issue reasoned decisions. It would also have the important power to request interim measures between the presentation of a complaint and the determination of its merits, to avoid possible irreparable damage to the alleged victim.”


“The main advantage of a specific body would be that it provides an expedited procedure in case of alleged violations and focuses the international attention on breaches of journalists’ rights. The Committee’s annual reports to the General Assembly on compliance would act as an important form of leverage, as international law notoriously relies on peer pressure for enforcement,” she adds.


It could be argued that the most persistent threats to journalists occur online through social media activists and bloggers, many of whom act under the cloak of anonymity.


To what extent has the Draft Convention factored this new menace into the equation, especially when many governments are powerless to protect against such borderless platforms?


Dr Draghici says the Convention will be of assistance in this regard, by placing obligations on individual states to prevent, deter, effectively investigate and punish private acts of intimidation against journalists.