Attacks on journalists during protests increasing warns UNESCO

Posted on: September 15, 2020 by Mariella Brown

Incidents of violence against journalists covering protests across the world have risen sharply with police and security forces the main culprits, the United Nations cultural agency has said.

UNESCO said it had counted 21 protests between January and June of this year where journalists were attacked, arrested or killed.

The report said the rise came as part of “a wider upward trend in the use of unlawful force by police and security forces over the last 5 years.” In 2015, journalists covering 15 protests worldwide were impeded by the police and security forces but by 2019, that number had more than doubled to 32. 

At least 10 journalists were killed during protests between 2015 and mid-2020 when there were 125 instances of attacks on or arrests of reporters, the report found.

This includes 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee who was shot dead while covering clashes in 2019 in Londonderry (Derry) in Northern Ireland.

The Safety of Journalists Covering Protests report emerges after a hostile six months for press coverage of protests with journalists targeted at pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Black Lives Matters demonstrations in the US. Subsequently, the summer’s ongoing demonstrations in Belarus have seen authorities withdraw accreditation for foreign media journalists including the BBC.

“Hundreds of journalists around the world trying to cover protests have been harassed, beaten, intimidated, arrested, put under surveillance, abducted, and had their equipment damaged,” the report stated.

“Others have been held incommunicado, humiliated, choked and fired upon with non-lethal as well as live ammunition.

“A majority of the attacks have been committed by police and security forces. Police use of non-lethal ammunition ranging from rubber bullets to pepper balls, has injured dozens of journalists, with a few having been left blinded in one eye.”

The report also said that while in some cases protesters had harassed or attacked journalists covering demonstrations, these attacks amount to far less than attacks by security forces on the press.

Gender and diversity of journalists were also factors examined – with the report highlighting the case of the arrest of an Afro-Latino CNN reporter live on air while his white colleagues were allowed to continue reporting on US protests following the killing of George Floyd in May.

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay called on governments to make sure that journalists can continue their job without fear for their safety.

“Journalists have a critical role in reporting and informing audiences on protest movements,” she said in response to the report.

“We call on the international community and all relevant authorities to ensure that these fundamental rights are upheld.”

The report also contained recommendations for national authorities, international organisations and media outlets to ensure better protections for journalists.

These included:

  • Strengthening training for police and law enforcement actors on freedom of expression and appropriate behaviour in dealing with the media
  • Providing appropriate training and equipment to journalists, including freelancers, sent to cover demonstrations
  • Appointing national ombudsmen to hold police accountable for the use of force against journalists during demonstrations
  • Strengthening national mechanisms for the safety of journalists.

The report can be read in full here.