Iceland's foreign secretary: Govt's, civil society must unite to protect journalists
MANILA, Philippines – Iceland's Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson on Thursday, July 11, told a global forum in London of the steps his government has taken to help protect human rights and a free press around the world, including in the Philippines where the current government has "increasingly threatened" critical media.
Thórdarson addressed the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London on the same day that the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Iceland's draft resolution for the UNHRC to call for concrete actions against the rising number of killings in the Philippines, including those under President Rodrigo Duterte's violent anti-illegal drug campaign.
Here is the full text of his speech, as delivered:
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
I would like to start off by paying tribute to our 3 speakers, who have all had to experience something no journalist should have to experience. In fact, no one should have to worry about being kidnapped or imprisoned for simply doing their job. And all of us should be able to enjoy full freedom of expression.
As a politician, I can confess that I occasionally get frustrated with journalists, but it is a small price to pay for media freedom. Diligent and capable journalists play a key role in our society. Without a free press, a society is neither free nor enlightened. Without a free press, democracy and human rights will suffer.
Last year, 2018, was the deadliest year on record for journalists. UNESCO confirms that at least 99 journalists were killed, 348 imprisoned and further 60 were held hostage. Freedom of expression is being stifled and independent media faces serious challenges.
Organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, follow these trends closely and the Committee to Protect Journalists has spoken of a global crackdown on press freedom worldwide.
Also, the latest report from the Council of Europe’s platform for the protection of journalism and safety of journalists confirms worsening environment for media freedom in Europe and continuously growing number of attacks of journalists.
This precarious situation of journalists and the media in Europe prompted the Foreign Ministers of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] countries to make a Decision on the Safety of Journalists in Milan last December where we condemned attacks on journalists and called for their protection by law. We need to follow upon this decision and our message is loud and – the media is an integral part of democratic and pluralistic society, and fundamental for our common security.
Today’s conference shows that other countries are taking note and stepping up to defend media freedom. Iceland is ready to do its part. Iceland may be small, but our human rights and gender equality record has allowed our voice to be heard.
We have consistently used appropriate international fora to call on states to improve the status of the press, including in the United Nations Human Rights Council, where we hope to use our current membership for visible progress.
When states repeatedly defy calls for cooperation and improvement of their human rights situation, we use the tools at the Council’s disposal: resolutions and joint statements supported by a broad coalition of likeminded states.
This year Iceland has led two initiatives in the Council relevant to our discussion today. One is a Joint Statement led by Iceland in the Council in March on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, in which we were eventually joined by 35 other states.
Until this year, there had been little appetite in the Human Rights Council for any joint or concerted action against Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. But as the world followed the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul it became apparent that joint action might now be possible.
Our Joint Statement made headlines around the world simply for the fact that Saudi Arabia is rarely censured in that forum. In our Statement, we condemned in the strongest possible terms the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, highlighting that the circumstances of his death reaffirmed the need to protect journalists and to uphold the right to freedom of expression around the world. We called for a prompt investigation into the killing and stressed that it had to be effective, thorough, independent and impartial, as well as transparent. And that those responsible must be held to account.
The Saudi Government has not responded in a transparent way but I think it is possible to say that the criticism has at least brought to bear some pressure, along with the subsequent further efforts in the Council in the current session. So, while it is impossible to say with any certainty that this Joint Statement of 36 states will have a long-lasting positive effect on human rights in Saudi Arabia, or indeed on the situation of journalists and freedom of expression, we remain hopeful. Positive change takes time. A drop of water hollows out the stone.
In the ongoing session of the Human Rights Council we also initiated action that relates to the human rights situation in the Philippines. The original and primary focus of 3 Joint Statements we have previously led in the Council was on extrajudicial killings in relation to the so-called “war on drugs” in the Philippines. You will be aware that there are allegations that 27,000 people may have been killed since President [Rodrigo] Duterte came to power.
Recently, as President Duterte has increasingly threatened journalists and media agencies critical of his government, the freedom of the media has come into sharper focus. The revocation of the registration of the independent news website Rappler, and the arrest of its founder, Maria Ressa, is just one example of retribution for critical coverage of Duterte's administration and his “war on drugs."
The High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has stated that the arrest on libel charges of Maria Ressa appears to be the latest element in a pattern of intimidation of a media outlet that has fiercely guarded its independence and its right to conduct investigations and criticize the authorities.
About a month ago, 11 independent experts of the Human Rights Council called for an independent investigation into the situation in the Philippines, referring in part to threats against independent media and journalists, noting that the law had been “weaponized” to undermine press freedom. In short, they argued, the Government is doing all it can to silence critical voices, such as that of the independent press.
On the basis of all this, and our previous leadership on 3 Joint Statements to the Human Rights Council, we decided to move ahead and table a resolution in the Council. The text expressed concern about allegations of human rights violations in the Philippines, particularly those involving killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, intimidation, and persecution of or violence against members of civil society, human rights defenders, indigenous peoples, journalists, lawyers, members of the political opposition, and restrictions on the freedoms of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
The resolution, which was voted on in favor this morning in Geneva, called for cooperation by the Government of the Philippines with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, and requested a report from the High Commissioner on the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is no doubt that media freedom and the safety of journalists is under threat. Governments and civil society must work together to reverse this trend. We must defend the freedom of speech, a hallmark of any democratic and free society.
Governments that value democracy and freedom must lead by example and be ready to use existing international processes to push for progress. Iceland will increasingly prioritize media freedom in its work at the Human Rights Council, UNESCO, OSCE and the Council of Europe, working closely with likeminded states and international human rights organizations.
The UK and Canada have set the course and with the work of the great journalists in the room, I am hopeful that things will change.