Society backs targeted sanctions to protect journalists

Posted on: February 14, 2020 by Claire Meadows

The Society of Editors (SoE) is backing calls by a legal panel of experts for the introduction of targeted sanctions against those complicit in the killing or imprisonment of journalists.

The report, launched at Chatham House yesterday (February 13, 2020) by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, calls for targeted sanctions to be used in response to “serious systemic restrictions on media freedoms” such as bans on the internet and the shutting down of news organisations.

If introduced, the sanctions would target those responsible for the deaths of journalists such as Saudi reporter Jamal Khashoggi and British correspondent Christopher Allen who was shot dead in South Sudan by government forces in 2017 and whose story was highlighted at last year’s SoE Conference in London.

The recommendations are the first from the Independent High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, set up last year by the Foreign Office with the UK and Canada taking a lead on pledging to promote media freedom. The panel is chaired by former UK Supreme Court president Lord David Neuberger with Clooney as deputy chairman. She was also appointed UK Special Envoy on Media Freedom by the then-Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP in 2019.

Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said that the enforcement of sanctions against individuals and corporations could be seen as an effective international tool to punish those that violate the rights of journalists.

He said: “Obviously the ultimate sanction against those who murder journalists should be that they are brought to justice. But by applying targeted sanctions against individuals or regimes, that themselves target journalists, would send a powerful signal.”

The report warns that media freedom has been deteriorating around the world over the past decade in both open societies and authoritarian regimes and that freedom of expression and the media are the areas ‘under the most severe attack by governments around the world’ through censorship and ‘more nuanced attempts to throttle’ an independent press.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CJP), between 2018 and January 2020 over 130 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide. CJP found that during 2019, over 250 journalists around the world were imprisoned for their work.

Targeted sanctions can be deployed in response to a range of conduct, including terrorism and corruption as a well as violations of human rights, the report states. The sanctions would involve asset freezes and visa bans against individuals or companies and in cases of unjust imprisonment, Government policy should be clear that prosecutors, judges and officials could all be found complicit, it advises. The effect of such sanctions would ‘shift the default from impunity to accountability’ the report advises.  

“Sanctions help to shine a spotlight on misconduct and signal a state’s disapproval of it,” the report continues. “They constitute a form of accountability. And they help to maintain pressure on the responsible actors, to deter them from continuing their abusive behaviour and discouraging third parties from doing the same. At a time when multilateral efforts to enforce human rights through the UN Security Council and international criminal courts are in decline, targeted sanctions can be one of the few ways, or in some cases the only way, to enforce international norms,” it reads.

The publication of the report comes weeks after peers in the House of Lords called for an independent investigation into the death of British journalist Christopher Allen. Allen was 26 when he was killed while reporting the country’s civil war in 2017. He was shot dead during fighting between government and rebel forces.

Allen’s cousin, filmmaker Jeremy Bliss, spoke at the Society of Editors conference in November 2019 and urged the media to sustain an interest in Christopher’s case and for governments to do more to help end violence against journalists.

Following calls by Lord Black of Brentwood for the government to ensure that justice is delivered “over the vicious killing” of Allen, Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon assured peers that the UK is working closely with the United States on pressing the South Sudanese authorities on this particular case.

The report went onto recommend that all signatories to the Global Pledge on Media Freedom unveiled at the Foreign Office’s inaugural Global Conference on Media Freedom in July 2018, adopt the sanctions regime. Only the US and Canada have active sanctions regimes in place with the UK awaiting secondary legislation to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 to come into effect.

It advised: “Such measures would help to ensure that journalists, media professionals and others engaged in journalistic activities can carry out their work without harassment, intimidation, false imprisonment or violent attack.”

Read the report in full here