Speakers from more than 30 countries were joined by journalists in discussing the issue, with the majority stressing the need for greater protection and a truer delineation of what makes a professional journalist.
"Every time a journalist is killed by extremists, drug cartels or even government forces, there is one less voice to speak on behalf of the victims of conflict, crime and human rights abuses," deputy secretary-general Jan Eliasson told the chamber in the opening remarks, detailing how 600 journalists had been killed in the last decade.
"Every journalist murdered or intimidated into silence is one less observer of efforts to uphold rights and ensure human dignity," he said.
Mustafa Haji Abdinur, a Somalian reporter for Agence France-Presse, and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi foreign correspondent for the Guardian, spoke alongside Kathleen Carroll, senior vice-president and executive editor of the Associated Press and vice-chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and NBC's Richard Engel in telling delegates of their work with and experience of attacks on journalists.
Abdinur said he was often described as a "dead man walking" in his home country, while Abdul-Ahad and Engel have both been imprisoned or kidnapped while working in conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa. Since 2006, 108 journalists have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and last year 41 journalists were killed in Syria alone.As a community of professionals we should be doing something at grassroots level to raise awareness of journalism in conflict zonesAidan Sullivan, vice president of photo assignment at Getty Images and founder of A Day Without News?
"Without a free press, there can be no freedom for a country," Abdinur said, adding that when a journalist is killed, "the news dies too".
State media buildings and communications infrastructure have traditionally been considered legitimate targets for military objectives but UN Resolution 1738, passed in 2006, condemned intentional attacks on journalists, defining them as civilians "provided that they take no action adversely affecting their status as civilians".
Engel said in Syria many rebels carried cameras and called themselves journalists but were in fact part of the fight and would not criticise their own cause. In order to protect journalists it would first be necessary to define a journalist, he said, and while many activists report events via Twitter that is not what fully constitutes journalism.
"Just because one uses Twitter does not necessarily mean they are a journalist," he said, emphasising how many governments and tyrants were comfortable with the ambiguity but that making a clear distinction and giving professional journalists protection and immunity was vital.
The idea of giving journalists "special status" was echoed by Aidan Sullivan, vice president of photo assignment at Getty Images and founder of A Day Without News? (ADWN), a campaign group which heavily influenced the decision to hold an open debate at the UN.
"Our job after this is to lobby the member states that clearly feel strongly about this," Sullivan told Journalism.co.uk, explaining that their next aim would be to have Resolution 1738 re-worded and strengthened.
Sullivan started the campaign in 2012 while chairman of the World Press Photo organisation. The panel had decided to commend the young French photographer Rémi Ochlik for his work but Ochlik was killed alongside the award-winning war correspondent Marie Colvin, a personal friend of Sullivan's, before he could receive his award. The previous year the photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, also friends of Sullivan, were killed by mortar fire in Libya.
"For me it was a case of enough is enough," Sullivan told Journalism.co.uk. "Something had to be done and as a community of professionals we should be doing something at grassroots level to raise awareness of journalism in conflict zones."
Colvin and Ochlik were killed in Homs, Syria, fleeing a makeshift media centre that had come under artillery fire from the Syrian Army. The Telegraph reported that French journalist Jean-Pierre Perrin, who was with Colvin in Homs a week before her death, had travelled to Beirut where Lebanese intelligence staff had intercepted Syrian communications regarding the siege.
"The Syrian Army issued orders to 'kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil'," Perrin said. An opposition activist told the Telegraph that telephone lines into the city had been cut and the Army was bombing any building with a detectable mobile phone signal. The day before, Colvin had appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, CNN and ITN News, reporting on the conflict via satellite phone from their base.
ADWN will be continuing to work alongside the CPJ and Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) in raising awareness and action around the issue.
"The RSF are very close to the French mission [to the UN] and they'll be having those conversations," he said. "Holding conversations and lobbying to see what reaction we can get. That's what we'll be helping the CPJ and RSF to do.
"They could invoke the Geneva convention and the ICC. We want it to go beyond just the rhetoric to action. But you have to follow the meandering diplomatic process, its not something that's going to happen over night."
The CPJ Asia Desk, which was live-tweeting the debate, reported that the French delegate had called for "full and immediate implementation" of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, a report authored by UNESCO and endorsed by the UN Chief Executives board in April 2012.
The director of UNESCO's Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development, Guy Berger, told Journalism.co.uk that the UN Plan was already being implemented in a number of countries – including Pakistan, South Sudan, Nepal and Iraq – where "broad-based meetings have or are taking place to develop and implement a national strategy on safety".
"The task is to take the 120 activities outlined in the Implementation Strategy for the UN Plan, and localize them," said Berger. "This means joining up existing efforts by journalists, UN organisations, NGOs, governments and others in order to maximize synergies and impact, and also to attract funding for activities as well as involve new stakeholders like lawyers’ associations and environmental groups with an interest in safety of journalists and an end to impunity."
Berger said the sharing of experiences across countries was particularly important in learning what works best in the process, highlighting the regular UNESCO e-newsletter as a means of achieving those aims.
UNESCO is also completing research on "Journalism Safety Indicators" which Berger said would help UN bodies to "map the state of play in safety issues" for particular countries or on an international basis.
"The findings of this research can help identify priorities and opportunities for joint actions," he said, "and also serve as a bottom line against which any changes can be measured. At the end of 2014, there will be a conference to assess an overall evaluation of what the Plan has achieved over a two year period."
The activities described in the implementation strategy fall into categories of strengthening UN mechanisms, co-operating with member states, partnering with relevant organisations and institutions and raising awareness.
For Sullivan and ADWN, raising awareness and having the UN Security Council debate the issue were two of the key objectives in starting the campaign. The third was to get a criminal investigation into the deaths of Colvin and Ochlik.
"For me this is a very personal thing," Sullivan said. "Journalists and photojournalists aren't given the respect they deserve for what they do in the name of the truth for the public. It's not diplomacy or rhetoric it's people being aware of the lengths that journalists go to in their job."
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