Q&A with UNESCO's Guy Berger: How to combat impunity for crimes against journalists

UNESCO's Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development tells us how we can encourage press freedom, combat impunity and mobilize others to advocate for journalists.


Main image by IJNet.


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Looking back at his political imprisonment in his native South Africa in the early 1980s as a journalist, Guy Berger says journalism safety trainings could have come in handy.

During his questioning, Berger said he overestimated how much the authorities knew about his collection of “illegal books” — hundreds of books and publications were banned during apartheid — and ended up telling them more than they knew.

“It would have been nice to know how you can negotiate with authority [and] how to survive that process,” Berger explained.

Now director of the division for freedom of expression and media development at UNESCO, Berger advocates for the safety of journalists worldwide. Along with his team, Berger works with public institutions and governments to protect journalists through laws, policies, trainings and advocacy.

Under the framework of the UN's 2012 Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, Berger continues to fight for an end to impunity for crimes committed against journalists. While he says it hasn’t quite “changed the world,” the plan has united the cause. Internationally, people can come together and agree on one thing: Killings and impunity have to stop.

“Not a single actor can solve this problem,” Berger said.

Below, Berger tells IJNet how we can encourage press freedom, combat impunity and mobilize others to advocate for journalists.

IJNet: What are the current issues with media development and press freedom?

Berger: If you have freedom, but ... not a strong basis for journalism, it’s like a half-empty freedom. Because the beauty of freedom of expression and press freedom is you can have journalism, which is unique. The weaker the media organizations are, the more vulnerable they are to being co-opted, biased or pushed around. So media development is a big issue.

On the press freedom side, the biggest issue is the killings of journalists, and I say that because it’s the worst form of censorship. It’s bad if you put a journalist in prison, but it’s worse if they are gone forever. And the signal it sounds out to other journalists, their sources and citizens is to keep quiet. [It tells them that] if you enter into the arena with public information, it could be dangerous.

Killings have increased a lot for different reasons. In all cases it’s a motive for the killers to stop different information from getting out. But they have different motives. The mafia is one story, terrorism is another story, state actors are another. Unless one can try to build some kind of culture of respect for journalism, we’re going to face even more problems like this.

People should protect journalists. One way we can do this is to combat this impunity problem. For nine out of ten journalists killed, there are never any repercussions for the killers.

How can we combat this impunity problem?

Safety and impunity are two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, you have journalists who need better training about how to protect themselves so they don’t get killed. Of course, it’s not always in their hands. You also need pressure on those who are killing journalists to stop the killing and for the government to protect journalists.

There are two variables here: The political will and the capacity. In some situations, you find there’s not much political will, and you need to have advocacy. On the capacity building side, there’s a lot of need to set up special units to deal with these issues. Serbia has a whole process to deal with past cases of impunity. Colombia has an interesting system for protecting journalists.

In crisis countries like Syria and Iraq, it’s difficult to raise awareness ... because they have much bigger issues, and it’s difficult to build capacity because they don’t have institutions. But you can document. At some point the situation will change in those countries, and if you can begin to tell people in those countries, ‘You may have to account for your actions down the line in the International Criminal Court or through some other procedure,’ it may save a few journalists’ lives.

Has it gotten worse or better for journalists since you reported?

It’s definitely gotten worse. In some situations, those who were violent still needed journalists to get their message out. Now, they think, 'if we kill a journalist, we can get our message out on YouTube.' But if you also have some other cause you want to promote – you can’t just promote the cause of terror – you’ll need some journalists who can report on why you’re doing this.

Why I’m a bit more optimistic is it’s becoming more and more of a mainstream issue: There are more and more people concerned and more events and trainings, including digital training. There’s a lot more awareness of it now.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Main image by IJNet.

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