Explaining that she had posted bail eight times to be there, Filipina journalist Maria Ressa was a compelling figure Thursday at the London launch of a report by the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom.
Ms. Ressa, under investigation by the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte, spoke in the presence of members of a panel convened at the request of the British and Canadian governments to deliver international action on media freedom and protection for journalists.
Ms. Ressa, who faces a maximum of 83 years in jail for what she says are baseless, politically motivated charges, spoke at a news conference held by the panel to launch its first report, The Use of Sanctions to Protect Journalists. The report was authored by Ms. Ressa’s lawyer, Amal Clooney, who is the panel’s deputy chair and a prominent Lebanese-British barrister specializing in international law as applied to human rights.
“As a world of journalism has gone through creative destruction, so have the rule of law and the profession of law,” Ms. Ressa said, at an event co-hosted by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. “So please, give us new rules to protect us.”
The 80-page report offers guidelines, not rules. It discusses the power of targeted penalties on individuals as a tool to enforce governments’ international human-rights obligations, including their responsibilities to respect free speech and to protect journalists. Sanctions include freezing an individuals’ assets and banning their entry into certain countries.
They can be deployed in response to terrorism and corruption as well as human-rights violations. Targets range from “governmental officials to police, prosecutors and judges; from high-ranking ministers to lower level henchmen; from private businessmen to multinational companies complicit in human-rights violations.”
The document was endorsed by the 15-member panel on media freedom. Present at the report’s unveiling was the panel’s Canadian representative, Irwin Cotler, a human-rights lawyer and former attorney-general of Canada.
There have been rising threats to journalists and increased appropriation of the media by authoritarian rulers in recent years. It is believed that 130 journalists were killed in the past two years, and some 300 imprisoned for doing their job.
The most publicized and cold-blooded example of what Ms. Clooney characterized on Thursday as a “global gag on speech” was the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the U.S.-based Saudi journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government who was killed after walking into the country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
The murder of Mr. Khashoggi provoked worldwide outrage, but attacks on media freedom and credibility are not always as sensational. Military rulers in Sudan black out the internet. A journalist is charged with crimes against the state for reporting on the coronavirus in Malaysia. U.S. President Donald Trump belittles the media in his campaign to engender a widespread mistrust of it. Journalist Glenn Greenwald was charged with cybercrimes after criticizing President Jair Bolsonaro’s regime in Brazil.
Beyond imposing sanctions on those who repress the media, Ms. Clooney laid out other government mechanisms: issuing visas to media at risk; providing consular assistance to journalists arrested abroad; supporting a global system of reporting journalists’ arrests and trials; and creating a procedure for international investigations of persistent or egregious attacks on the press.
“I think it’s a very clear-eyed assessment,” Brendan de Caires said of the report. Mr. de Caires is the executive director of PEN Canada, an organization dedicated to defending freedom of expression at home and abroad. “The report seemed to be written with the idea to tilt the culture, toward one that is more respectful of human rights and more wary of breaching international norms.”
The report asserts that media freedom has been in decline for a decade, through systemic censorship as well as relentless attacks on journalists, ranging from online harassment to arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings. As well, many governments are refusing to hold perpetrators of such attacks to account and, in many places, the governments are the perpetrators.
“International sanctions targeting individuals responsible for the abuses can highlight their misconduct, limit their impact and act as a deterrent to future misdeeds,” the report concludes.
The initiative came out of last year’s London-held Global Conference for Media Freedom. The next such meeting is set to happen in Quebec City, in early September.