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Don't shoot the messenger: No justice for journalists

Journalist documenting events at the Independence square. Clashes in Ukraine, Kyiv. Mstyslav Chernov/ UnFrame
Journalist documenting events at the Independence square. Clashes in Ukraine, Kyiv. Mstyslav Chernov/ UnFrame

The issue of crimes against journalists is one that resonates strongly with this month's guest blogger, Isabelle, herself a journalist. Here she assesses the impact of the culture of impunity and why it is important to challenge it.

A couple of months ago, a Mozambican man was gunned down on his early morning run. The street where he was shot, Avenida Vladimir Lenine, is one of major avenues of the capital, Maputo, and a place I’ve frequented throughout my life. He died on the pavement, not far from the British High Commission.

Paulo Machava was a well-known journalist who, during his career, had hosted a radio show that discussed the city’s organized crime; led an independent weekly that regularly criticized the government; and, more recently, shown support for other journalists who are being prosecuted in the country.

Incidentally, Machava had covered the assassination of another prominent investigative journalist, Carlos Cardoso, who was also shot and killed in central Maputo 15 years ago. Cardoso’s murder and the inadequate investigation of the case had bred fear among journalists and compromised press freedom in the country.

“No journalist anywhere should have to risk their life to report the news. Together, let us stand up for journalists – and stand up for justice.” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon

An inherently dangerous career

As a journalist myself, I’ve come to accept that danger and injustice are an inevitable part of the experience. Historically, this profession isn’t peaceful in nature and one’s safety is more of a question than a certainty. Whether you’re involved in print, broadcast, or new media; and whether you’re a freelancer or affiliated with an agency, you’re putting yourself on the line every time you investigate and report the news.Mozambique is just one of the many nations where the concept of freedom of expression is on shaky ground. Journalists and media workers from all over the globe are continually threatened, censored, detained, or killed for trying to share to truth—just like Machava.

A fundamental problem is that only one in 10 cases committed against a media worker leads to a conviction; such a statistic is a threat to the very foundations of democracy. When the perpetrators of such crimes are not held accountable, corruption flourishes, which instigates more attacks against journalists. Consequently, members of the media are discouraged from doing their jobs and ultimately, society loses faith in the justice system. This is why the 2nd of November, “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists”, is so important.

Impunity is injustice

International Day to End Impunity Against Journalists 2
These reporters have been held hostage for over 500 days. Leo Gonzales/Flickr: Reporters Without Borders
IFEX, a global network that supports freedom of expression, states that most crimes against free expression go unpunished, and this fosters a culture of impunity:

“A culture of impunity creates a climate of insecurity for those practising their right to freedom of expression. This leads to a world where people are afraid to speak out. Where criticism is stifled. Where the hard questions don't get asked. Where the powerful don't get challenged. The result is a world where free expression is silenced.”

Cultures of impunity exist all over the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently published its 2015 Global Impunity Index, which listed Somalia, Iraq, and Syria as the top three countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free— literally geting away with murder. According to its research, murder makes up nearly 70% of work-related deaths among journalists. And most of these cases remain unsolved.

The unnerving numbers

More than 700 journalists have been killed over the past decade, which might seem like a small number compared to the lives lost through ongoing wars, periods of conflict or acts of terrorism. However, media workers are the ones who expose corruption, deliver news on crises, and bring otherwise inaccessible information to the public’s attention. The UN General Assembly notes their crucial role in building inclusive knowledge societies and democracies, and in fostering intercultural dialogue, peace, and good governance.

According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), close to 90 journalists and media staff have already been killed this year. The IFJ just launched its annual global campaign to hold world governments and de facto authorities accountable for impunity records for crimes targeting journalists. This not only includes murders, but also non-fatal attacks as well as oppressive tactics such as intimidation, censorship, and detention. The campaign focuses on four countries:

  • Mexico, where 89% of cases of aggression go unsolved.
  • The Philippines, home of the Maguindanao massacre, which was the single deadliest attack on the media. 
  • Ukraine, which has experienced a slow and steady deterioration in media freedom and ranks 129th in the 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
  • Yemen, where 10 journalists have already died this year, while 14 reporters remain captive.

How do we protect press freedom?

Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is crucial for democracy. Jason Taellious.
Nations are not only encouraged to condemn all attacks and violence against media workers, but to do their best to prevent them from happening. According to the CPJ, threats often precede killings, yet these are rarely investigated by authorities. This is one crucial shortcoming that needs to be addressed by launching speedy and impartial enquiries into all allegations of violence against journalists.

They should also ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice by enforcing legislation; raising awareness about international human rights; implementing a system for monitoring and reporting threats and attacks; and dedicating resources to prosecuting assailants.

Unfortunately, military officials, political groups, and governments are often considered the leading suspects in murder cases. Essentially, this means that it’s up to NGOs and grassroots organisations to put pressure on states to create a safe environment for media professionals to work autonomously.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, which includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This is vital to a successful democracy, and those who exercise this right need to be respected and protected.

The UNESCO Director-General emphasises this in her message for the 2015 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists:

“The near complete impunity for the perpetrators of crimes against journalists goes against everything that we stand for, our shared values, our common objectives… I urge everyone to stand up on November 2 and demand that the rule of law is fully applied when journalists are attacked and killed in the line of duty.”