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International experts discuss impunity during live video from Vienna

Journalists Johanne Sutton, Pierre Billaud and Volker Handloik, killed in Afghanistan on 11 November 2001
Journalists Johanne Sutton, Pierre Billaud and Volker Handloik, killed in Afghanistan on 11 November 2001

Allan De Los Angeles

Live from Vienna, Austria on 23 November, IFEX teamed up with its member the International Press Institute (IPI) to broadcast an online Q&A about impunity with experts from Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines and the international community. An international audience had the opportunity to send in questions live during the discussion on the International Day to End Impunity. Catch some of the highlights here.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibilities (CMFR) in the Philippines, began by saying that NGOs recognise the importance of the rule of law in combating impunity. She added that "the counter-impunity campaign involves initiatives to reform the problematic criminal justice system," from amending the penal code to modifying the witness protection programme. She also stressed the importance of changing the culture of impunity in the fight for justice.

During the live conversation, a viewer asked, "How effective are UN resolutions in affecting impunity?" Quintos de Jesus responded that most people don't even know about them, so to be more effective it is necessary to raise public awareness about UN resolutions and other international mechanisms. "The failure here is that there are a great many problems that the world faces . . . and people can get distracted," she said.

Concurring that a strong national framework is needed, Andrés Morales, executive director of the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) in Colombia, stated that "If we don't have more political will to confront security problems . . . it's very difficult to deal with impunity." Alison Bethel McKenzie, IPI executive director, suggested that: "We have to do a better job of engaging the 'average Joe'," a sentiment that Morales built on by later highlighting the importance of clarifying how the murders of journalists affect people directly.

Elizabeth Sutton, whose sister Johanne was killed during a Taliban attack on an armoured vehicle in Afghanistan 10 years ago, asked why foreign governments won't push for an investigation into what happened. Moderator Anthony Mills, IPI press freedom manager, asked participants if it is the role of individual governments to raise the issues of human rights, and pondered, "Are countries falling short of this role?"

Bethel responded that, unfortunately, those who kill journalists during wars are unlikely to be brought to justice. Andrei Richter, director of the Office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, agreed that it is almost impossible to bring individuals to justice for crimes during wars, apart from the leaders of wars who may be tried in international tribunals.

Morales added that the problem of bringing the killers of journalists to justice in cases that are many years old is not just a problem that results from war – the statute of limitations in these cases often runs out before the cases are solved. In Colombia, nine cases have run out in 2011, twenty years after the crimes were committed and many of the cases featured during the IDEI campaign are years old.

Theodros Arega, an exiled Ethiopian journalist from Sweden, asked, "Don't you think it's a bit naive and an understatement to say 'end impunity' while major political players from US to China, from Russia to Norway are putting national interests first at the expense of helpless, voiceless Ethiopians, Yemenis, Eritreans, Bahrainis, Rwandans, Chinese, Tibetans etc?"

Unfortunately, "the political cost of impunity is zero," answered Darío Ramírez, director of ARTICLE 19's Mexico and Central America office, adding that in order to minimise the risks to journalists you have to take the time and work hard on prevention. Sadly, at the end of the day, he says, "If you want to be risk free, don't be a journalist."

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