This year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists highlights why the safety of journalists is vital to all our freedom, writes William Horsley.

700 journalists killed for their work in 10 years, and a total failure of states to convict any of those responsible in 94 per cent of all those killings. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) figures eloquently describe a global failure by governments to uphold their pious words about the paramount value of free expression and free media that are contained in many international declarations and texts.

But the reality for many independent journalists in Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan, let alone Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or Mexico, is even grimmer than those figures suggest.

The debates around this year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (IDEI day) have highlighted the rapid spread of whole cultures of impunity that shield powerful figures from the reach of accountability and justice, and this is happening even in parts of Europe.

The common instrument for that severe “chilling effect” on free speech and inquiring journalism is draconian anti-terrorism and defamation laws – backed by unrestrained state powers of surveillance – which have the effect of criminalising journalism.

Peter Greste, the Al Jazeera journalist who was jailed for a year in Egypt on spurious terrorism-related charges before being released, told a public meeting in the UK Parliament on IDEI day that the watershed moment had been US President George W Bush’s warning to the whole world that “you are either with us or with the terrorists”.

Since then the UK and France have greatly extended the state’s powers to snoop into people’s lives and limit the public debate in the name of safety and security. The balance has been lost, as has been amply articulated by international jurists, UN special rapporteurs and others.

UNESCO has done the world a service by clarifying in the name of the international community why the safety of journalists and the fight against impunity is literally vital to all our freedoms: because most journalists are killed to silence them when they report on corruption, crime and serious human rights abuses.

When journalists are attacked or killed, whole communities can be intimidated into silence by fear. Self-censorship, based on fear or coercion, is rampant even in much of the European media.

Defending free expression against this onslaught is at last being recognised by many as the great human challenge of our times.

It can well be compared with the long-standing campaigns against torture and the holding of political prisoners, which were also born in response to an urgent need.

The European Parliament has a creditable record in blowing the whistle on these alarming developments.

But the EU as a whole is widely judged to have so far flunked this crucial test, by failing to confront the severe squeeze on press freedom in member states like Hungary or further afield.

The Council of Europe has openly recognised, in this year’s report by Secretary-General Thorbjorn Jagland that press freedom and the safety of journalists are among the main casualties of a dramatic erosion of judicial independence and government accountability.

European leaders must stop going on about their passionate commitment to press freedom until they speak up and act forcefully to protect journalists who are forced to live with daily threats of violence or are already in jail.

UNESCO has called on all democratic states – and the media themselves – to do much more to hold authoritarian governments to account for misdeeds and impunity. The problem is not “theirs”. It is ours.

About the author

William Horsley is the UK Chair and the Media Freedom Representative of the Association of European Journalists, an independent network active in European 25 countries.