Journalists for Human Rights works to promote human rights awareness, better governance and transparency and stronger and more inclusive democratic outcomes. We do this through strengthening media worldwide. This includes working with government and civil society to build an “enabling environment” in which media can do its work free from fear.
Based in Canada, the organization has been working side by side with journalists across Africa, the Middle East and with Indigenous communities in Canada since 2002. In that time, we’ve seen the kind of government abuse and corruption that can happen when journalists are too intimidated to do their work. And we’ve also seen the positive change that can happen when journalists are empowered.
This year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists comes on the eve of the U.S. election. For the past four years, the U.S. has been run by a President fond of quoting Joseph Stalin’s maxim that the media is the enemy of the people. In this time, it has become common for journalists working in America to be attacked and beaten up on camera, including by police, while covering protests. A gunman killed five journalists working at the Maryland Capital Gazette. And a man who lived in a van covered with stickers expressing his support of Donald Trump mailed parcel bombs to CNN offices across America. Meanwhile, propagandists use disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion on social media in ways that, in 2016, helped deliver the election of populist authoritarian figures in the U.S. and the Philippines.
Truth is under attack worldwide, a situation expressed most starkly in the mounting numbers of journalists killed annually, as tracked by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.
Somewhat mitigating this dark picture are outcomes from JHR’s recent project in South Sudan, a partnership with Global Affairs Canada.
From 2016 to 2020, the project worked not just on training journalists, but also on building an “enabling environment” in which journalists can work without fear.
In South Sudan, journalists were working in fear for their lives.
In 2014, when JHR started project development work, South Sudan was a target country for the UN Plan of Action on Safety and Security of Journalists. This was due to the extraordinary number of journalists being killed in South Sudan in the line of work. In 2015, seven journalists lost their lives through conflict or extra-judicial killings that went unpunished.
When I first went to Juba, the South Sudan president Salva Kiir had recently been quoted saying that journalists should be shot for reporting “against the state.” He recanted the statement, but the damage was done: a day later, a journalist, Peter Julius Moi, was shot and killed en route home from his newsroom.
In short, there was open warfare between government and media. Journalists were being arrested simply for daring to question authority. Lost in the process: any notion that government be held accountable by journalists to the needs of its citizens.
JHR’s program in South Sudan aimed to strengthen media. It did this by building up a consensus of support across government, media and civil society for the important oversight work that journalists do. Of particular importance in this context was building a constructive partnership with the local Media Authority, the government body mandated to manage conflict between media and government. JHR also worked to train government officials to understand the laws that govern relations between media and government, and their rationale.
Over the course of four years, JHR’s team in Juba, led by team leader Laura Bain, trained almost 500 leading government officials, including members of the police and National Security, in best practices of working with and respecting media’s right to do their work. JHR also clarified and helped to normalize the practice of journalists questioning authority on-air and in print. Result? Since 2017, no journalist has died in the course of their work in South Sudan, a situation that external observers have traced back to JHR’s work.
Notably, the JHR program also helped to normalize a culture of journalists questioning authority in ways that, in a few notable cases, have promoted more constructive government engagement with the issues raised by the stories, and better outcomes for people. A series of stories documenting government soldiers’ abuse and rape of women led to prosecutions; another series spotlighting an issue where girls couldn’t pay their school fees despite the existence of funding intended to help them ensured the funds were released and girls could go back to school.
What all this demonstrates on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists is that oversight matters. When journalists are intimidated and bullied from doing their work properly, their ability to perform this vital oversight function is weakened significantly. And in an environment of weakened oversight, abusers are emboldened to commit acts of cruelty or corruption without fear of consequences. When journalists are left alone to do their oversight work properly, this can and does lead to better outcomes for people – even in places like South Sudan.
It is important to note that the situation for journalists in South Sudan remains fraught. Journalists continue to suffer censorship, harassment, intimidation and the threat of arrest; in 2019, AFP correspondent Sam Mednick was thrown out of the country, having previously been attacked physically while covering a protest in 2018. Much more remains to be done to end impunity for those who commit crimes against journalists, in South Sudan, in the United States, and elsewhere. But what JHR has seen is that working to build a foundation of support for media across government and civil society is a crucial step to helping roll back a culture of fear and get them to a place where they can do their work.