Journalists urge UN to better protect reporters

A group of journalists spoke at the United Nations today asking the Security Council to do more to protect reporters in conflict zones like they do diplomats.

Most journalists are killed in their own hometowns covering local stories and exposing crime, group says

A group of journalists address a United Nations Security Council Wednesday, advocating for the protection of civilians in armed conflict and the protection of journalists. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

A group of journalists spoke at the United Nations today asking the Security Council to do more to protect reporters in conflict zones like they do diplomats.

This was the first time the council has dealt with this topic. In 2006, the council condemned attacks on correspondents, but the number of journalists kidnapped has nearly doubled since then and the number of reporters murdered has risen from 71 to 121.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson opened the meeting by decrying the killing of more than 600 journalists in the past decade.

The death of American journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Homs earlier this year, brought the issue into the light, but most journalists are not murdered or imprisoned when abroad, but rather, at home.

Most are killed in their own hometowns covering local stories and exposing crime, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"Like so many others in my profession, on the dusty streets of Mogadishu, they call me dead man walking,"  said reporter Mustafa Haji Abdinur, when speaking of reporting in Somalia.

"As a journalist, it’s a waiting game; it’s not a question of if, but when." Abdinur told the council of the many friends and colleagues he has lost on the job.

Since Somalia's civil war began more than 20 years ago, more than 60 journalists have been killed, at least 18 in the last year.

Deadliest places

Syria is currently considered the most dangerous country in the world for journalists.

Forty-one reporters — both local, foreign and those using social media — were killed in Syria last year.

As the council was meeting, the assassination Wednesday of pro-Syrian journalist and political commentator Mohammed Darrar Jammo was announced in Lebanon, and the killing of Egyptian photographer Ahmed Assem el-Senousy during a demonstration on July 8 was condemned by Irina Bokova, head of the UN agency tasked with defending press freedom.

Associated Press executive editor Kathleen Carroll, vice-chairwoman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that reporters serve as the public's eyes and ears in conflict situations by going to places and asking questions that most people cannot.  

"An attack on a journalist is a proxy for an attack on the ordinary citizen, an attack on that citizen's right to information about their communities and their institutions" and their world, she said.

Most go unpunished

Of all the reporters that are killed across the world, Eliasson said, "it is shocking and unacceptable that more than 90 per cent of the assassinations of journalists go unpunished."

Abdinur, who works with Agence France Presse, said that the reason he and other reporters continue to risk their lives is because "there is no doubt that without a free press there can be no freedom for a country ... and by doing our jobs we feel that we are saving lives."

Also on the agenda was the issue of the increasing difficulty in defining who is a journalist.

NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel said that protecting journalists today is harder than ever.

"Go back 50 years or even just 15 years, journalists were well-known, we carried badges, we were guests on the diplomatic scene…," said Engel, who was kidnapped by pro-regime gunmen in northern Syria and held for five days in December 2012.

Engel said that just because someone knows how to use Twitter does not make them necessarily a journalist.

"We're all bloggers and punks and rebels with cameras. There is absolutely no respect for career journalists anymore," he said. 

'Don't kill us'

Almost 50 countries were present at Wednesday’s UN debate, including some that have very poor records when it comes to freedom and protection of the press.

Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a foreign correspondent for the Guardian newspaper who was jailed in Libya and Afghanistan, said there's a "sense of immunity towards all the people who kill, detain, capture journalists."  

Abdul-Ahad urged the council understand that journalists are "part of a humanitarian effort to tell a story."  

"Many of you hate us, by the way, and I know that," he said as diplomats burst into laughter. "It's a sign that we're doing our job properly if we've managed to piss you off. But there has to be some sort of balance. Just let us be there. Treat us as human beings. Just don't kill us."

With files from the Associated Press