By taking up the crusade for the safety of the practice of journalism, the United Nations is identifying with the role of journalists as agents of positive change in the society. The global body is also doing so in full consciousness of the increasing danger that journalists are exposed to, on a daily basis, in the course of discharging their professional duties. It is, indeed, in furtherance of the need to put the issue in the front burner of global agenda that the UN, last year, declared November 2 of every year as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.
The first edition of this important day was marked last week, where the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, highlighted the unique role played by journalists in entrenching democracy and creating a better society. Given this sacred responsibility, the UN chief is of the view that journalists should be protected instead of being turned into objects of vicious attacks the world over. “This must stop; and by ending impunity, we deepen freedom of expression and bolster dialogue and, together, let us stand up for journalists,” he said in his message to mark the event.
No doubt, ours has been an era marked by an unmatched level of cruelty and bestiality against journalists. It is an epoch that has witnessed the wilful killing of journalists, perhaps, more than anytime before. The frightening statistics seem to say it all. According to the Secretary-General, over 700 journalists have been killed in the course of performing their duties in the past 10 years. This is a heavy price to pay in the course of trying to mould a better society by exposing corruption and promoting transparency in governance. The pain endured is even more, when those who commit the crime are allowed to walk away free.
Delving further into the atrocities directed at journalists in different parts of the world, the UN Secretary-General said, “It is so unfortunate that, in just the past year, some 17 Iraqi journalists had been executed while, elsewhere, many more have suffered from intimidation, death threats and violence.” Sadly, it is also in the troubled territories of Iraq and Syria that some journalists were decapitated recently and the video of the execution presented in its most barbaric form to the world to behold, by the blood-thirsty Islamist terror group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In Somalia, a failed state where Islamist terrorists by the name of al-Shabaab have been waging a bloody war of attrition against the state, journalists have become an endangered species. No fewer than 19 of them were killed in 2012 alone, in what was described as the deadliest year for journalists in that country. This followed the nine reportedly killed the previous year. Reporters Sans Frontieres, a France-based press freedom watchdog, placed Somalia at the 175th position out of the 179 countries surveyed in its World Press Freedom Index.
All around, stories of cruelty against journalists continue to shock the world. In Egypt, for instance, three journalists from al Jazeera, a Middle East-based cable television network, have been in detention for close to a year now following a crackdown by that country’s government. Earlier, their station had been shut down. This is besides the two journalists that died during the Arab Spring that brought about a change of government in that country.
In Afghanistan, one of the war-torn Asian countries where terrorists have a significant presence, 28 journalists have lost their lives in the past 13 years, according to reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Here in Nigeria, where documented evidence shows that journalists contributed immensely – some even made the supreme sacrifice – to assist in evolving the current democracy, journalism can hardly be described as a profession practised with minimal risks. Although the situation may not be as frightening as in Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, where eight journalists died between 2011 and 2012, and Yemen, where the casualty figure also stood at eight, a lot of Nigerian journalists have also suffered violence, even under this democratic dispensation.
In February, Toyin Obadina, a journalist with Daily Newswatch, was shot dead as he was returning from work, while, in September, two journalists were attacked by illegal train commuters, leading to the death of one of them. The journalists were accused of filming the illegal passengers with a view to exposing them. There are so many cases of violence against journalists in Nigeria, dating back to 1986 when Dele Giwa, the founding Editor-in-Chief of Newswatch magazine, was killed by a letter bomb, and the killing of TheNews reporter, Bagauda Kaltho, at a Kaduna hotel in 1997. In 2009, The Guardian lost an Assistant News Editor, Bayo Ohu, to assassins’ bullets.
However, the real tragedy of the situation is that, as rightly observed by the UN chief, “…nine out of 10 cases go unpunished, which served to embolden (the) criminals.” This is why on December 18, 2013, the UN General Assembly, while reaffirming the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, adopted Resolution A/RES/68/163, urging states “to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers” and “to promote a safe environment for journalists to perform their work.”
There is no doubt that killing or visiting unwarranted violence upon any citizen is a crime that should be appropriately punished. And given the role of journalists as the voice for the voiceless, who hold the government to account on behalf of the people, appropriate punishment for crimes against them and a conducive environment for them to practise, without undue threats to their lives, are the least that they deserve.