How U.N., international groups help defend press freedom

Camille Elemia
How U.N., international groups help defend press freedom
(UPDATED) International lawyers seek targeted sanctions 'to impose serious financial consequences on state officials' who abuse journalists

NEW YORK, USA (UPDATED) – With increased hostility toward journalists around the world, experts have turned to international laws and mechanisms to help defend press freedom.

The United Nations and other international institutions have crucial roles in holding states to account when they do not comply with international laws.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher, international human rights lawyer at Doughty Street Chambers in the United Kingdom, said it is important to make it difficult for the state to continue harassing reporters. Gallagher is the lead counsel of the family of slain Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Gallagher and colleague Amal Clooney, UK’s special envoy for media freedom, are leading the international legal team of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.

“Many of the cases I’ve done, the issue is how do you make it more difficult for the state to continue to harass our clients than do the opposite? Many states are responsive to international mechanisms. When you get findings from UN, Council of Europe…for many states that embarrasses them in the international stage,” Gallagher told Rappler in an interview.

“It can help them do the right thing. But in some states, that kind of leverage don’t work, they don’t particularly care. In those cases, you have to find them…commercial pressure,” she added.

Clooney highlighted the need for a new paradigm – “that where the media is under attack, targeted sanctions will be a counter-attack.”

In her speech at a media freedom panel at the UN, Clooney, the human rights lawyer cited 5 new tools that could be useful for journalists in the absence of government support:

  • The consistent and effective use of targeted sanctions regimes to impose serious financial consequences on state officials who abuse media freedom
  • Enhanced consular assistance to a journalist who is detained abroad
  • The deployment of an international team to investigate attacks on journalists when the state authorities are unwilling or unable to act
  • A commitment to increased transparency, so that we know when journalists are arrested, and we can get into courtrooms where they are on trial
  • A system of visas for persecuted journalists seeking safety abroad

So far, Clooney said the UK government is open to plans to bar human rights abusers from entering the country and to freeze their bank accounts and seize other assets.

Dangerous precedents, green light

Gallagher said attacks against the press in the United States and Australia send a “green light” to other countries to do the same.

“When you have the President of the United States being openly contemptous of journalists and saving particular ire for women of color who are journalists, that sets the tone. Unfortunately, in many democracies around the world, there are leaders who should know better have used very extreme and bombastic language about journalists. That is used, I think, to give a green light to other states who don’t have a system, which is rule of law compliant, to use similar language,” she said.

Nancy Hollander shared the same observation. Hollander is the lawyer of Chelsea Manning, the whistleblower detained after leaking classified documents to Wikileaks while serving in the US Army.

“The US government is so actively hostile to journalists that that’s a threat journalists in the whole world because if the US is hostile to a journalist, it just gives license to other countries to be hostile. And that hostitlity can show itself in jail sentences, torture, and all the others – people being charged spurious crimes, espionage, refusing to testify in grand jury like Chelsea Manning, whistleblowers who don’t get protection…. That’s a very dangerous situation all over the world,” Hollander said.

Gallagher, however, said threats to media freedom do not just involve extreme cases, such as death or violence. Many, she added, involve legal attacks and difficult business environments.

“We’re increasingly finding challenges to open justice, so in the UK for example, there’s a whole series of restrictions now placed upon journalists’ access to courts, whole series of restrictions to their access to documents and evidence which are relevant to their works. So we shouldn’t just think of challenges to press freedom about violence, threats. It’s far broader than that,” Gallagher said.

“Unless you have a free press, it’s so hard to have other rights. It’s what you need to speak truth to power and shine the light on abuses.” –

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Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation issues, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email