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UN mobilizes to improve safety for journalists and fight impunity

A UN system-wide plan to create a safer working environment for journalists has been given new momentum at a UNESCO-organized meeting that ended in Vienna today.

The meeting, organized by UNESCO, brought together representatives from 15 United Nations bodies, including Frank Larue, the UN Special Rapporteur for the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion, and Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. More than 40 non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, independent experts, media groups and professional associations also attended.

They pledged to work together and with relevant national authorities to ensure that the recommendations of the United Nations Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity were applied at country level.

The implementation strategy discussed at the meeting operates at global and national levels, and outlines more than 100 areas of work by different UN agencies and civil society groups to secure the safety of journalists.

They include:

· helping governments to develop laws on safeguarding journalists and mechanisms favorable to freedom of expression and information

· awareness-raising so that citizens understand the damage done when a journalist's rights to freedom of expression is curtailed or terminated

· training courses for journalists in safety and e-safety; the provision of health care and life insurance;

· establishing real time emergency response mechanisms

· strengthening the safety of journalists in conflict zones

· decriminalizing defamation offenses

· encouraging adequate remuneration for both full-time and freelance employees

· enhancing protection for women journalists in response to the increasing incidence of sexual harassment and rape

'More than 100 journalists have been killed so far this year, making 2012 the deadliest year for media since UNESCO began keeping records on the killing of journalists' said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in a message to the meeting.

Thirty-two of these victims lost their lives covering the conflict in Syria and another 18 were killed in Somalia. However, the majority of victims were not war correspondents, but local reporters covering illegal activities such as drug trafficking or illegal logging.

'And these attacks – not only the many murders and physical assaults, but also the countless abductions, the acts of harassment, the illegal arrests, the arbitrary detentions – have an impact that reaches well beyond the personal suffering the person involved,' said Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. 'They chill press freedom and the right of everyone to live as informed citizens in peaceful societies. They aim to silence the journalist and, by extension, all of us.'

Civil society delegates issued a statement during the meeting welcoming and endorsing the Plan. They also recommended that it be implemented in a comprehensive manner in Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan, South Sudan and Latin America.

'We are delighted that the United Nations recognizes that more needs to be done to ensure that journalists can carry out their work without fear of attack,' said Larry Kilman, deputy CEO of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). However, he cautioned, 'the key for the success of this plan will rest on the degree of cooperation from UN member states, who carry the responsibility of tackling a culture of impunity by bringing the attacks and killers of media professionals to justice. We hope the UN's approach will contribute to more engagement from national authorities.'

This message was echoed at a parallel roundtable discussion organized by the International Press Institute at the Presse Club Concordia in Vienna, at which panelists concluded that governments worldwide must take responsibility for ending the threat to journalist safety .

Discussions over the two-days led to a rich exchange of experiences and ideas on ways to strengthen the role of the United Nations, establishing partnerships with governmental, intergovernmental and other organizations and groups, and working with civil society and media to heighten awareness and foster safety initiatives.

The second and final day of the meeting coincided with International Day to End Impunity for which the International Freedom of Expression Exchange network (IFEX), launched a global campaign highlighting the extent to which crimes against journalists go unpunished.

The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity is the result of a process that began in 2010 upon request of the Intergovernmental Council of UNESCO'S International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC). The Plan was endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board on 12 April 2012.

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