More than 700 journalists and media workers have been killed in the past decade, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Its draft research agenda on journalists’ safety, published last month (1 June), is designed to strengthen press freedom and reduce self-censorship.
“Under the fire of war, especially in the developing world, it is hard to keep journalists safe.”
Ali Eddin, journalist
Until now, there has been little research on this topic, says Reeta Pöyhtäri, UNESCO’s expert on indicators the agency uses to assess journalists’ safety. “We believe that research can help in the creation of free and safer working conditions for journalists, from which they will benefit in their daily work.”
The goal is for the research and analysis to contribute to the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which aims to create “a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers in both conflict and non-conflict situations.” This is meant to strengthen peace, democracy and development worldwide.
Among the ten broad areas of suggested research are physical, online and psychological safety.
UNESCO’s ten proposed research topics on the safety of journalists
- Rights-based issues, such as human rights and freedom of expression
- Conflict issues, including war reporting and propaganda
- Societal issues, for example the effect on the audience of threats to journalists’ safety
- Legal issues, such as legal and extra-legal tools to protect journalists
- Practitioner issues, for instance journalistic ethics and the safety of freelancers
- Psychological issues, including the effects of threats and self-censorship
- Economic issues, for example the working conditions of journalists
- Digital issues, including the threats to journalists’ safety online
- Thematic issues, such as safety in different journalistic beats
- Educational issues, including covering safety in journalists’ training
UNESCO plans to discuss the agenda with academics during dedicated sessions at upcoming conferences. The first two sessions are due to take place this month, during the International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference in Canada, and the Global Communication Association Conference in Germany.
The situation is a particular concern in conflict areas in the developing world. For example, the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression has documented 282 murders of journalists during the Syrian conflict.
But Mohamed Ali Eddin, an Egyptian journalist and photographer, says that covering science topics can be as dangerous as war reporting, flagging up the Ebola outbreak as an example. “I myself frequently have to cover stories from contaminated or industrial areas in hazardous circumstances,” he says.
For example, Ali Eddin recently reported for SciDev.Net on the terrible working conditions of quarry workers in Egypt, who are exposed to injuries and lung disease.
Yemeni environmental journalist Omar Alhayani says: “Under the fire of war, especially in the developing world, it is hard to keep journalists safe.” In the Yemeni conflict, he says, it is tough for journalists to get information and it is dangerous as they are a target for all sides.
A global agreement between governments to guard journalists’ safety would be the most desirable outcome from UNESCO’s research agenda, Alhayani says.
Samir Mahmoud, a journalism professor at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, adds that discussing the agenda with academics, press unions and journalism associations in different countries might help to make it more relevant to the needs of different groups. “We haven’t yet had the chance to discuss the agenda with academics in depth,” says Pöyhtäri. While UNESCO has targeted journalism, media and communication researchers, the discussion is intended to also include experts from other disciplines such as psychology, law, and the social and political sciences, she says.