BBC and CFOM Symposium ‘Making the Protection of Journalists a Reality: Time to end Impunity’, held on April 7 2014 at BBC Broadcasting House, London

Read the opening remarks by Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News on ‘What strategy against violence and impunity?’

Peter HorrocksWelcome to you all. I want first to thank you all for making your way here, many of you from faraway places. It is a particular honour for us to welcome Judge Monageng, the First Vice-President of the International Criminal Court, who will make her keynote address this afternoon.

The timing of this event could not be more tragic or more essential. The ghastly news of the killing of the AP’s Anja Niedringhaus and the shooting of her colleague Kathy Gannon reminds us yet again of the desperate dangers our front-line colleagues face. Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor of the AP, was due to be with us today but understandably has stayed in New York to handle the situation. Our condolences and thoughts are with Kathleen and all at the AP. Their tragedy makes our task today only more urgent.

I want now to outline some of the key arguments we will be addressing today and asking whether the media are doing enough in this area and, if not, why not.

This Symposium is the result of intensive joint efforts by BBC Global News and the BBC’s College of Journalism in partnership with the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield, led by William Horsley, CFOM’s International Director.

The core aim of this Symposium is not just to raise our common understanding about threats to media freedom and independence, but to equip ourselves better with strategies to turn the tide back towards freedom. William and his CFOM colleagues have agreed to coordinate those follow-up efforts, and with that in mind he will act as the Rapporteur for this event. The BBC College of Journalism has already published outstanding authored scripts from some of you, and I hope you find those things valuable.

The BBC and CFOM together hosted the first such gathering of leading members of the global media community here at the BBC just eighteen months ago. The purpose of that meeting was to raise the question of what responses may be required from news organisations in the face of a well-documented increase in targeted violence against journalists and other attempts to silence independent journalism.

That first Symposium resulted in a ‘London Statement’, which urged more intensive media scrutiny of governmental authorities and judiciaries in order to expose serious abuses of power and to counter impunity; it also called for effective actions by national governments and international bodies to safeguard journalism and the lives of media workers. It was a significant first step.

The London Statement, with over 40 signatures of media representatives, was delivered to the United Nations at a conference in Vienna held in November 2012, which launched an unprecedented international effort: the UN’s Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

I and others believe that the UN Action Plan deserves to be strongly and actively supported. And I am very pleased that Guy Berger, the Director of the Freedom of Expression Division of UNESCO is here today to update us on the opportunities the Action Plan sets out to contribute to the protection of media freedom.

The title of today’s event describes exactly our purpose: ‘Making the Protection of Journalists a Reality: Time to end Impunity’. There are strong reasons to believe that the situation for independent across the world has worsened further recently. I believe media organisations have a responsibility to take stock again, and seek better protections for press freedom.

The numbers speak for themselves: UNESCO, has published figures showing that over 540 journalists have been killed in connection with their work since the beginning of 2007. That death toll is arguably the worst for any period in modern history. And for every violent death of a journalist, countless more suffer arrest, imprisonment, assaults leading to serious injuries, and threats to their own lives or those of their families.

The great majority of journalists killed in the line of duty are local journalists working in their own country, and often their deaths are barely registered in news reports. But each death places in sharp relief the vital importance of the work done by journalists, often in the face of acute dangers.

Less than three weeks ago, on 20 March, the Kabul bureau chief of the news agency AFP, Sardar Ahmad, was among nine people killed in an armed Taliban assault on a hotel.  His wife and two of their children also died.

Such individual tragedies remind us the witness that independent journalists provide when they risk their lives in conflict zones. Freedom of expression is rightly called an ‘enabling right’ because it makes possible a wide range of other universal human rights.

But the death of Sardar Ahmad, and many others, also brings us face to face with our own helplessness in the face of violence. In fewer than one in ten of targeted attacks against journalists are such crimes ever solved. That persistent pattern of impunity has been described as the biggest single generator of more  attacks and murders of journalists.

The chilling effect of the increasing violence is multiplied by this impunity – that is, by the obvious breakdown of the rule of law when those responsible routinely go unpunished. Those who aim to silence journalists and other critical voices by force are encouraged to believe they can do so without risk.

Perhaps even more worrying is that the majority of killings of journalists occur not in war zones or in crossfire but in targeted attacks in countries across the globe against journalists whose job is to report and expose sensitive matters such as corruption, crime and abuses of power.

Holding power to account is one of the key things that journalism is about, and as journalists and editors we cannot be bystanders when the ability to investigate and ask necessary and tough questions is blocked by censorship, or by self-censorship.

Major news organisations including the BBC and other international public broadcasters have already stated our concern that this negative environment is impeding our ability to report at first hand from many parts of the world, to local and global audiences.

What is being done about this? The United Nations itself has taken a lead by placing these issues high up the agenda of key UN bodies through a series of Resolutions and a special debate in the Security Council in July of last year.

In this way the governments of the world have collectively told the journalistic community that they should not be silent about this onslaught, but can take action to be part of the solution.

On 18 December last year. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a Resolution on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity. It called on all UN Member States to promote a ‘safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference’. Among other things, the text says,  this may be done by ‘awareness-raising… among journalists and in civil society, regarding international law obligations and commitments relating to the safety of journalists.’

What are the right responses from the side of the media? That is the main theme of today’s gathering, and I look forward to hearing from the distinguished editors, journalists, jurists and experts here, who will bring their insights and proposals from the frontlines of conflicts, as well from the political and legal arena where press freedom also needs to be vigorously defended.

For myself, I will simply say now that the BBC will live up to the commitment I made at the previous Symposium on journalists’ safety here at the BBC in 2012. I said then that major news organisations have a special responsibility to show leadership in this area.

However, if I look at the BBC’s record of coverage and influencing in this I think we focus less on threats to media than we might do. As is true of many media organisations. Why is this?

Some of it is a justifiable aversion to journalistic introspection and navel-gazing. Why, editors argue,  should the death of a journalist deserve more coverage than any other citizen or protester? We maybe imagine that our readers and audiences see journalistic freedom as a complex abstract issue and it therefore commands few column inches  or broadcast minutes.

Also, for organisations committed to journalistic impartiality like the BBC, an excessive focus on an issue can look like campaigning, or a deliberate opposition to certain governments. We naturally recoil from that. In some situations, there may be a wariness of supporting other organisations, especially competitors or those with different editorial values. And many news organisations are wary of conducting any formal advocacy or policy campaigning, even in their own interest, lest it compromise their independence or undermine their ability to operate in certain countries. All those factors can create considerable inertia. What can counter that?

In my view there are powerful reasons to act. Simply, it is the right thing to do. The world’s most powerful news organisations owe it to their fellow news professionals in smaller organisations to help protect them. It is also a matter of self interest and safety. Every time a killer of someone like Anja Niedringhaus gets away without punishment, your next journalist in the same location is under even greater threat. But for me the strongest argument for our proactive engagement in this issue is that it is not a matter of indifference for the public.

There was good evidence for this in a poll published last week by the BBC World Service in 17. It found that overall only 40 percent of people polled rate their country’s media as free, down significantly from 59 percent in a similar poll conducted in 2007. [The biggest falls occurred in Kenya (down 37 points), India (down 23 points) and Russia (down 20 points).] In the UK and USA, the percentage thinking their media is free has dropped over the seven years from majorities to minorities (56% to 45%, and 53% to 42%, respectively).

(The poll was carried out for us by Globescan and I can share the details with anyone who wants them)

In organising this Symposium our approach has been to seek constructive dialogue. We have placed particular emphasis on engaging with public authorities as well as media in several countries where turbulent recent events have commanded international attention, especially Brazil, Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey.

The Symposium’s organisers have approached the Embassies of each of those four countries to invite their participation in this meeting. I am pleased to welcome Michael Marsden, the Press Officer of Brazil’s London Embassy, who has come here as an observer. I regret that unfortunately the Ambassadors of Egypt and Turkey and the High Commissioner of Pakistan have not taken up our invitation to send an official representative.

We are also joined by Rob Fenn, head of the Democracy and Human Rights Department of the UK FCO. I’m delighted the FCO is in attendance to her the strength of concern among the journalistic community and that the UK government will be able to lend its support to the initiatives we discuss today.

I especially thank the frontline journalists who have flown to London to be with us today from faraway places.

Many of you will be aware that today marks exactly 100 days since the Al Jazeera English TV correspondent Peter Greste and his collegues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were arrested on December 29. They are being held in a Cairo prison on anti-terrorism charges and accused of falsifying news reports although no credible evidence has been presented to back up those accusations.

At 1.15 pm today  a protest will take place outside the BBC’s New Broadcasting House as a show of solidarity with journalists who are unjustly held in jails in Egypt and other countries around the world. A number of BBC journalists will also be taking part in this protest, and you all invited to join it if you choose to do so. I shall also be reading out a prepared Statement, the text of which has been circulated to you.