IMS convenes national human rights institution stakeholders in Asia to promote safety of journalists

IMS has launched a workshop series for national human rights institution (NHRI) decision makers and civil society leaders in Asia for exploring how NHRIs can engage in peer-to-peer support regionally to establish independent, multi-stakeholder journalist safety mechanisms.

The initiative was kicked-off in an online forum organised to share findings of research on national efforts to set up journalist safety mechanisms in collaboration with NHRIs in four countries – Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines – on 16 December 2021. The three-hour online forum had participants from all four countries, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).  

Opening the forum, IMS Asia Head of Department Lars Bestle said the focus on the national approach was a result of the realisation that short-term, reactive responses were not enough to tackle safety challenges faced by journalists in post-conflict countries.  

The work on setting up a national journalists’ safety mechanism had started in Nepal in 2012 and culminated in late 2019 when the Nepal National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) adopted procedures for setting up such a mechanism using powers derived from the National Human Rights Act 2012. 

“After the end of the conflict in Nepal, the national and international media community was very exhausted returning year-after-year to the same issues,” said Bestle, adding that “journalists and media there needed more than reactive support”. 

Opening remarks provided by OHCHR Human Rights Officer Anna Katulu and UNESCO Programme Specialist Andrea Cairola stressed the importance of journalists’ safety and the protection of freedom of expression, and how the NHRIs were rightly positioned to take on this responsibility in different national jurisdictions. The two UN bodies are working jointly and in complimentary ways to support the Global Drive for Media Freedom and Safety of Journalists.  

UNESCO also discussed its on-going initiatives to bolster reporting on journalist safety and free expression by NHRIs in their submissions for the Universal Periodic Review. 

Nepal NHRC Acting Secretary Murari Prasad Kharel then explained the structure of the Nepal mechanism and added that the commission could require international assistance in operationalising the new institution.  

The Nepal mechanism includes representatives from the NHRC, journalists’ association, the Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers and the police force. The structure also allows for engaging civil society organisations in the safety arrangement that will also oversee freedom of expression violations. 

Researchers from the four countries followed by presenting their findings and recommendations that were commented on by representatives of NHRIs from participating countries. The discussions that followed revolved around identifying potential entry points to begin peer-to-peer collaborations among the participating countries. 

In Pakistan, the country adopted two laws on journalists’ safety in late 2021 – one provincial and one federal – but the speaker stressed that there was still a role for the NHRI there to be engaged in journalists’ safety and protection.  

Similarly, in the Philippines, the Commission on Human Rights is already working with media and civil society organisations towards setting up an independent mechanism on journalists’ safety, while some early efforts towards doing the same have just begun in Indonesia. 

FORUM-ASIA Executive Director Shamini Darshni Kaliemuthu spoke about the increasing authoritarianism and the shrinking of democratic spaces and offered to support efforts to establish independent mechanisms for journalists’ safety and protecting freedom of expression in countries across Asia.  

She said NHRIs were institutions with mandates to protect free expression and human rights defenders – and by extension, journalists – and had the leadership capability to bring stakeholders together to advocate against restrictive laws, monitor media freedoms and support independent mechanisms for protecting freedom of expression and opinion. 

IMS aims to continue the series of peer-to-peer workshops this year to engage NHRIs, journalists’ associations and civil society organisations across Asia in sharing experience and working towards anchoring safety mechanisms for journalists in national human rights institutes. The research was part of IMS’ Defending Journalism series and will be published in 2022.