10.20.2020
By Meaghan Newkirk
Journalists and Freedom of . . . Assembly?

When we think about journalists and human rights, we naturally think first about freedom of expression. Journalists, like all of us, have a right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” as stated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). And their exercise of that right—as a profession—is what allows us, the reading public, to a great extent to fulfill our corresponding right of access to information. The U.N. Human Rights Committee's General Comment 37, however, focuses on the important connection of journalists to another fundamental right—that of peaceful assembly. 

The comment notes that “for the full enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly” journalists’ role in “monitoring or reporting on assemblies is of particular importance.” It goes on to state explicitly that “they are entitled to protection under the Covenant.” This protection is all the more necessary when considered against the backdrop of intimidation, harassment, and risk that many journalists and media workers face daily. The UN Human Rights Council, for example, has repeatedly expressed concern over the alarming volume of violence and attacks on journalists and the atmosphere of impunity that allows this situation to continue. Within the last several weeks, the Council adopted a new resolution on the safety of journalists and called on States to take concrete actions to improve and remedy it. 

The COVID-19 global pandemic has further endangered journalists working to keep the public informed. Not only are journalists often on the frontlines of exposure to the disease while reporting, since March, civil society has drawn attention to the numerous other ways their work has been affected: through the arrest and detention of journalists critical of government responses, new laws against disinformation and “fake news,” censorship by state-owned media, and many others. Under these circumstances, the Human Rights Committee (HRC)’s clear enunciation of journalists’ important role bears a special significance. 

The comment states that journalists “may not be prohibited from, or unduly limited in” monitoring and reporting on assemblies, “including . . . the actions of law enforcement officials” and that they must not face “reprisals or other harassment” or confiscation of or damage to their equipment. And, as the general comment importantly continues, “Even if an assembly is declared unlawful or is dispersed, that does not terminate the right to monitor.” The right to monitor and report on an assembly does not end if it becomes violent; those are the very circumstances in which such activities are the most necessary. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has represented multiple journalists whose exercise of their fundamental rights was not respected in the way the general comment dictates. 

Mohamed Al-Bambary, a journalist and Sahrawi activist, is currently serving a six-year sentence in a Moroccan prison. Al-Bambary’s only “crime” was recording videos of peaceful protests by the Sahrawi population that ultimately developed into violent clashes. His coverage was implicitly critical of the Moroccan government’s response to the protests, and the State retaliated against him with trumped up charges of participation in the ‘riots.’ He was—as General Comment 37 now makes clear in explicit terms—acting well within his rights as a journalist monitoring and reporting on a peaceful assembly. 

In March 2017, Freedom Now and RFK Human Rights submitted a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) on behalf of Mohamed Al-Bambary. The Working Group found Al-Bambary’s detention by Moroccan authorities arbitrary and his due process rights violated in June 2018. Despite this, al-Bambary remains in prison, and RFK Human Rights continues to advocate for his release and for greater recognition of journalists’ rights and protections. (See the first blog in this series for discussion of an amicus brief addressing the protection of journalists reporting on protests.)

General Comment 37’s acknowledgement of journalists’ role in promoting effective enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly is noteworthy. Particularly in the present moment—during a global pandemic and when protests and demonstrations are erupting frequently—it is essential that we remain mindful of the need to protect journalists. General Comment 37 is a new tool in the civil society toolbox for reminding governments of their obligations towards journalists and for holding authorities accountable.

When we think about journalists and human rights, we naturally think first about freedom of expression. Journalists, like all of us, have a right “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,” as stated in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). And their exercise of that right—as a profession—is what allows us, the reading public, to a great extent to fulfill our corresponding right of access to information. The U.N. Human Rights Committee's General Comment 37, however, focuses on the important connection of journalists to another fundamental right—that of peaceful assembly. 

The comment notes that “for the full enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly” journalists’ role in “monitoring or reporting on assemblies is of particular importance.” It goes on to state explicitly that “they are entitled to protection under the Covenant.” This protection is all the more necessary when considered against the backdrop of intimidation, harassment, and risk that many journalists and media workers face daily. The UN Human Rights Council, for example, has repeatedly expressed concern over the alarming volume of violence and attacks on journalists and the atmosphere of impunity that allows this situation to continue. Within the last several weeks, the Council adopted a new resolution on the safety of journalists and called on States to take concrete actions to improve and remedy it. 

The COVID-19 global pandemic has further endangered journalists working to keep the public informed. Not only are journalists often on the frontlines of exposure to the disease while reporting, since March, civil society has drawn attention to the numerous other ways their work has been affected: through the arrest and detention of journalists critical of government responses, new laws against disinformation and “fake news,” censorship by state-owned media, and many others. Under these circumstances, the Human Rights Committee (HRC)’s clear enunciation of journalists’ important role bears a special significance. 

The comment states that journalists “may not be prohibited from, or unduly limited in” monitoring and reporting on assemblies, “including . . . the actions of law enforcement officials” and that they must not face “reprisals or other harassment” or confiscation of or damage to their equipment. And, as the general comment importantly continues, “Even if an assembly is declared unlawful or is dispersed, that does not terminate the right to monitor.” The right to monitor and report on an assembly does not end if it becomes violent; those are the very circumstances in which such activities are the most necessary. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has represented multiple journalists whose exercise of their fundamental rights was not respected in the way the general comment dictates. 

Mohamed Al-Bambary, a journalist and Sahrawi activist, is currently serving a six-year sentence in a Moroccan prison. Al-Bambary’s only “crime” was recording videos of peaceful protests by the Sahrawi population that ultimately developed into violent clashes. His coverage was implicitly critical of the Moroccan government’s response to the protests, and the State retaliated against him with trumped up charges of participation in the ‘riots.’ He was—as General Comment 37 now makes clear in explicit terms—acting well within his rights as a journalist monitoring and reporting on a peaceful assembly. 

In March 2017, Freedom Now and RFK Human Rights submitted a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) on behalf of Mohamed Al-Bambary. The Working Group found Al-Bambary’s detention by Moroccan authorities arbitrary and his due process rights violated in June 2018. Despite this, al-Bambary remains in prison, and RFK Human Rights continues to advocate for his release and for greater recognition of journalists’ rights and protections. (See the first blog in this series for discussion of an amicus brief addressing the protection of journalists reporting on protests.)

General Comment 37’s acknowledgement of journalists’ role in promoting effective enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly is noteworthy. Particularly in the present moment—during a global pandemic and when protests and demonstrations are erupting frequently—it is essential that we remain mindful of the need to protect journalists. General Comment 37 is a new tool in the civil society toolbox for reminding governments of their obligations towards journalists and for holding authorities accountable.