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June 15, 2003 

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Journalists as human rights defenders: New challenges

A. H. Monjurul KABIR

August 2003 will mark the third anniversary of the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for human rights defenders. Ms. Hina Jilani was the first to carry out the post's mandate, which called for her to press for the implementation of the 1998 Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and intervene in cases of threats to and harassment of human rights defenders worldwide. The 1998 Declaration recognises journalist as human rights defender and adds a critical momentum to the protection of human rights and its defenders worldwide. Journalists' role as substantial provider of information in the form of news, pictures and informed analysis endow them with unique role to serve democracy in diverse ways. They also directly contribute to the emancipation of people's right to information.
The right to information is one of the main human rights that protect and develop the human life. The use of the right to information will be able to contribute to solve the many social and cultural problems of the individual and the national level. But there are many pre-conditions, which are related to economical, social, cultural and political development for realising the right to information in a country. Unless a country has solved the main problems like hunger, education, health, social security and political freedom, it is not possible to realise the right to information. There is a strong relationship between the right to information and the development level of a country. The individuals who live in developed countries have many more possibilities in using the right to information than developing countries.

Freedom of expression the first casualty?
It is perhaps as an underpinning of democracy that 'freedom of expression' and 'access to information' are of significant importance. Free expression is fundamental for democracy. On the other hand, information held by public authorities is not acquired for the benefit of officials or politicians but for the public as a whole. Unless there are good reasons for withholding such information, everyone should be able to access it. More importantly, freedom of expression and access to information are critical components of transparent and accountable government. They play a key role in enabling citizens to see what is going on within government, and in exposing corruption and mismanagement. Open government is also essential if voters are to be able to assess the performance of elected officials and if individuals are to exercise their democratic rights effectively, for example through timely protests against new policies. Journalists are key to achieve this freedom or struggle for it.
The Universal Declaration, the European Convention and other international human rights agreements enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and access to information. These core documents explicitly protect freedom of expression "regardless of frontiers," a phrase especially pertinent to the fast evolving media around the globe:
"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." Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of borders." Article 10, European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms
No matter what the means, government restrictions on speech or access to speech of others violate basic freedom of expression protections. In addition to direct government censorship of communications, or privatised censorship, freedom of speech is threatened by diverse factors.
The right to free speech faces the strongest challenges during times of crisis. Whether or not any of us agree about each particular decision made to prevent public access to sensitive information, it is a shared responsibility to chart any such efforts so that communities are at least aware of what is no longer available to us.
Ensuring the free flow of information is of supreme importance in a democratic society, but there is recognition that the right to free expression is not absolute. National security is one area where restrictions are placed on freedom of expression. However, governments across the world are well known for invoking national security to cover a huge range of issues and information, which they would rather not see in the public domain. For this reason, the highest international standards dictate that any restrictions on free speech invoked on the grounds on national security must meet stringent criteria. International and national jurisprudence, as well as the clear language of a number of treaties, requires that any restrictions meet the three-part test, as set out by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and other courts.

Role of media in human rights
Increasingly media and/or journalists come to the forefront of the movement in defence of human rights. The importance of the media in uncovering past human rights abuses is often downplayed. In terms of basic human rights, the media transforms the ideas of freedom of opinion and expression into a reality. It also emancipates a number of critical agenda. Human rights coverage in media has been increased largely. Media documentation in South Asia of governments' complicity in "unofficial force" hit-squad tactics shows the vital role of media in uncovering human rights abuses as they occur. Risk to journalists covering human rights issues has also significantly increased worldwide. The following salient points could trace the diverse functions the media perform in Asia especially in our part of the world, i.e., South Asia. This catalogue of pro-rights media role is not exhaustive:

Popularising the issues/concepts of human rights
Human rights are not mere issues of academic interests, rather they are the inseparable part of human lives and dignity. The continued coverage (through news and opinion) on issues of human rights from right to environment to juvenile justice have a profound impact on the popular mindset; people are now more aware of their rights and obligations than they were in the past.

Changing 'anti-human rights' taboos and notions:
Media, specially the print media has been actively advocating for changing the conservative (in most cases 'anti-human rights') notions about sex workers, disabled persons, indigenous people, equality of opportunity in public employment, equal wages of female labourers etc.

Expanding people's right to know/information:
Media is keen to ensure people's right to information (right to receive, impart and seek information). It is committed to people's right to know and generally in favour of objective 'Freedom of Information' legislation. Internet is being widely used for both collection and dissemination of information.

Breaking the cycle of impunity:
Under the current system, government personnel have the privilege of "official immunity" -- effectively protecting them from criminal prosecution or civil suits -- even if they commit serious human rights abuses. Additionally, governmental organs and institutions possess "sovereign immunity," preventing them from being sued for damages for human rights violations committed by their officials. These two forms of immunity allow officials to commit severe human rights violations with impunity and prevent victims from ever obtaining effective redress. The print media through its extensive coverage opposes the granting of impunity to the unruly law enforcers and follows up such cases - thereby forced the police and other government agencies to break the vicious cycle of impunity, at least, in some cases of grave violations.

Making the law enforcing agencies accountable:
Using news and statistics to create culture of accountability for realising human rights is an important aspect of media's human rights pro-active contribution. Reporters perform an incredibly diligent duty.

Supporting human rights defenders, activists, groups and NGOs:
Media focuses the work of human rights defenders, activists, groups and NGOs of defending human rights. It also actively promoted their fact-finding/investigation work. Media is particularly concerned about the security of the human rights defenders as proclaimed in the UN Declaration on the Human Rights Defenders, 1998.

Waging campaign against male domination, religious extremism:
Promoting the cause of equality between man and women, and supporting women groups' against the prevalent male domination is a critical agenda of the mainstream print media groups of South Asia. Combating violence against women and children is an area where the media attention and intervention(s) have become a regular phenomenon.

Monitoring cases of public interests:
Media regularly monitors the cases of gross violations of human rights and of public importance. Such vigilance makes the concerned authorities including the police, the magistracy, and the office of the public prosecutors accountable.

Supporting institutional efforts to protect human rights:
Media actively supports the courts and other national human rights institutions in their endeavours to protect human rights better.

A.H. Monjurul Kabir, a human rights advocate, is a legal and human rights analyst and researcher. He can be contacted at <monjurulkabir@yahoo.com>. In the last episode, Mr. Kabir will analyse the impact of Security and Terrorism Quagmire on media and free journalism.

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