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Impunity remains a scourge of journalists worldwide


Thousands of journalists have been killed for reporting on issues of public interest and social justice. Together, the International Press Institute (IPI) and Transparency International (TI) are working to end impunity; to make sure that reporting on crime, politics and corruption is no longer a matter of life and death. Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity on Nov. 23, IPI and TI have released a series of features describing the plight of journalists today. As advocates for press freedom and against corruption, it is our collective obligation to demand justice and ensure that those trying to suppress the voice of the people do not get away with it.

Nov. 23 marks the anniversary of one of the most tragic events in the recent history of press freedom: the murder of 32 journalists, along with 26 civilians in a terrible incident of electoral violence, which went down in history as the Maguindanao or Ampatuan Massacre, respectively, after the province and the city in the Philippines where it took place.

Today, four years after this event, which marked a new level of violence in a country where journalists have been victims of deadly attacks for decades, no one has yet been sentenced in connection with the Maguindanao massacre or any of the other murders of journalists.

Nov. 23 remains as an important reminder of the fact that journalists across the world are regularly, in some cases even systematically, assassinated because of their profession. All too often, killing journalists has become an easy way to ensure that certain information is not circulated, that certain opinions are not expressed, and that certain wrongdoings and endemic corruption are not exposed. Impunity for such crimes is the rule in too many countries around the world, with only very few exceptions.

In 2011, the General Meeting of IFEX, a coalition of press freedom and freedom of expression organisations, declared Nov. 23 the International Day to End Impunity (IDEI), stressing the role that impunity plays in fostering violence against those who exercise their basic right to free expression.

"Impunity is a particularly difficult evil to counter because it is self-reinforcing," IPI noted when it marked IDEI in 2011. "When governments fail to investigate journalistic killings, it sends a message that the lives of journalists and the work of the media are trivial."

In the words of Christof Heyns, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, impunity is "a major, if not the main, cause" of the high number of journalists killed every year. Heyns said in a report presented in 2012 to the UN Human Right Council: "The countries where the highest numbers of journalists are killed are also, almost without exception, those with the highest levels of impunity."

Impunity in attacks against journalists is both widespread and endemic. In some cases, it is generated by weak and bad-functioning state institutions, which fail to investigate crimes against journalists or to bring culprits to justice. TI's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer shows that one in four people report having paid a bribe in the last 12 months when interacting with key public institutions and services. In countries with high levels of impunity, this number tends to be much higher. Impunity and corruption are dynamically interlinked as one can be the cause of the other. Impunity is the consequence of a lack of will of those in power, who abuse their position for personal gain and who are directly or indirectly involved in such crimes, or fear that prosecuting those responsible for the violence may weaken their rule.

In countries as different as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Mexico, successive governments have repeatedly expressed commitments to fight the "culture of impunity", widely considered the root cause of the violence. In some cases new laws were passed and new institutions created to facilitate the course of justice. However, the outcome in all three of these countries is close to nonexistent. As Frank La Rue, U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said at an IPI event marking IDEI in 2012, no solution to fight impunity could substitute for the "political will of governments". The question of whether any institutional or legislative reform is necessary to bring to justice the killers of Regina Martinez, murdered in April 2012 in Mexico, Marlene Garcia-Esperat, murdered in 2005 in the Philippines, or Meherun Runi, murdered in February 2012 in Bangladesh, becomes futile in light of this statement.

Talking to IPI about the origin of impunity in Afghanistan, Abdul Mujeeb Khalvatgar, Executive Director of Nai, explained that the tribal nature and mentality of Afghanistan's leadership has led to nepotism and corruption in order to protect the close aides. "The main problem in this regard came about when leaders thought that they are related to tribes," said Khalvatgar, whose group supports news media in Afghanistan. "Leaders and officials [...] had to defend their related individuals and followers in any circumstances and any situation, even if the individuals and/or followers committed crimes. Because the leaders and official thought that without these individuals and followers it is not possible for them to keep their power positions."

In both Russia and Ukraine, impunity for attacks against journalists remains a severe problem. Numerous journalists in Ukraine reported attacks in the run up to the October 2012 parliamentary election and during the course of this year. In late 2011, all charges were dropped against former President Leonid Kuchma in connection with the 2000 disappearance of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless body was later found in a wooded area. An audio recording, purportedly of Kuchma, appeared to implicate him in the crime, but a court later ruled that the recording was inadmissible as evidence. In early 2013, former senior police officer Oleksiy Pukach was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Gongadze. Pukach said that he would only accept his sentence when Kuchma and Volodymyr Lytvyn, Kuchma's former chief of staff, "join me in this cage". According to the Global Corruption Barometer, the police, followed by the judiciary, are the institutions that have asked for a bribe most often around the world in the past year. In the Ukraine, 49 percent of people reported paying a bribe to the police in the past year and 84 percent of respondents felt that the police - and 87 percent felt that the judiciary - were corrupt or extremely corrupt.

In Azerbaijan, Rafiq Tagi died in a hospital in November 2011 four days after he was stabbed by an unknown individual outside his Baku home. In 2006, he penned an article suggesting that Islam had hindered development in some Muslim states, including Azerbaijan, leading an Iranian ayatollah to issue a fatwa against him. An Azerbaijani court sentenced him to three years in prison in 2007 for "incitement to religious hatred" and Tagi, who was soon pardoned and released, later joked that authorities arrested him to save his life. Iran's government denied involvement in Tagi's murder, but the son of the by-then-late ayatollah who issued the fatwa praised the killing. Tagi's killing remains unsolved, as does that of Elmar Huseynov, the founder and editor of Russian-language opposition weekly Monitor, who in March 2005 was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building in Baku.

In 2000, the global anti-corruption community recognised leading Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge's fearless pursuit of the truth and the years he spent exposing corruption in Sri Lankan politics by granting him TI's very first Integrity Award. At that time Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader newspaper, had already been subject to defamation charges after exposing political corruption, which saw his newspaper temporarily banned by the Sri Lankan government. Even then, he and his family faced threats and physical attacks. Wickrematunge's murder in 2009 is one more chilling instance of a growing pattern of violence and intimidation against the media and civil society. In a posthumous editorial that was published in the Sunday Leader a few days after his death, he wrote: "Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty … Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last". Despite the brutal murder having been followed by the editorial speaking of its inevitability, not a single person has been convicted for the assassination.

At least 97 journalists have been killed so far in 2013. While impunity exists in many countries with long-established legal and judicial systems, the lack of legal consequences can be amplified in stateless countries like Somalia or those riven by internal conflict, including Iraq and Syria. The latter remains the deadliest country for journalists this year, with 14 killed. IPI has counted a total of 54 journalists killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict, some caught in the crossfire, others deliberately targeted because of their profession.

Conditions for journalists worsened as the civil war in Syria entered its second year in 2013, with news workers and media activists routinely falling victim to both the security forces and anti-government groups. At least 30 journalists - including 10 foreign journalists - and untold numbers of Syrian media workers have been kidnapped or are missing, and scores have been detained.

Nine journalists have been killed so far this year in Pakistan and eight in India, both democracies with institutions well-equipped to prevent the violence and fight the impunity, if the political will existed.

In Pakistan, where 67 journalists were killed in the past 10 years, according to IPI's Death Watch, violence against media and journalists represents a serious threat to the credibility of the country's democratic institutions.

"The alarming increase in violence and threats has forced many journalists to migrate from these danger zones, and intimidation has forced others to self-censor, particularly in the conflict areas", Owais Aslam Ali, chairman of Pakistan Press International, secretary general of the Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF), and a member of IPI's Executive Board, said in an interview recently published by IFEX. "Because of this, reports about military action by Pakistani law enforcement agencies, drone attacks by the U.S. forces or attacks by militants are largely based on press releases and not on observations by independent journalists."

Somalia ranks with Syria, Pakistan and India as one of the deadliest places for journalists to work, with violence claiming eight lives so far this year in the Horn of Africa country. In 2012, 16 journalists were killed there, making it the second deadliest place for journalists, after Syria. At least 52 journalists have died in Somalia since 2003, with near-certain impunity for the attackers as the country has been stateless for two decades. In a rare exception, a military court in late 2012 convicted a man in the Sept. 21, 2012, shooting death of radio broadcaster Hassan Yusuf Adsuge. The convicted killer was executed in August 2013.

When Somalia installed a new government in 2012, IPI joined with members of the National Union of Somali Journalists in calling for more emphasis on ending impunity. "Journalists are putting pressure on the government to make sure that crimes against journalists do not go overlooked," Omar Faruk Osman, secretary-general of the East African Journalists Association, told IPI in an August interview.

A total of seven journalists have been killed so far in the Philippines, which has been among the deadliest countries for journalists for over a decade and has become a sad epitome of impunity itself.

Observers had hoped that President Benigno Aquino III, who came to power in 2010, would turn around the endemic violence and impunity that characterized the government of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who presided over the deadliest period for Philippine journalists since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. At least 79 journalists were murdered during Macapagal-Arroyo's presidency, according to statistics from the Philippines' Centre for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR). But impunity has proven hard to die in the Philippines, and an expression of political will has not been enough to end the violence or the impunity. Nineteen journalists have been killed in the Philippines since 2010. Talking to IPI, Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of CMFR, stated that the greatest challenge to prosecution of perpetrators lies in everyday abuse, by both the defence and prosecution, of the Philippines' labyrinthine trial rules. "We have institutionalized irrational delays in the conduct of the trial, which reflects an institutional weakness," Quintos de Jesus said.

Four journalists have been killed in Iraq this year, all in the violence-plagued northern city of Mosul. There was little information on the motivation or possible suspects; although police officials were quoted by local media as saying the perpetrators would be found. More broadly, journalists throughout the country have been subjected to long detentions, beatings and harassment by security forces. They have also seen their equipment confiscated.

With a total of 194 journalists killed since 2003, Iraq is indeed the deadliest country in the world over the past decade.

Three journalists have been killed so far this year in Mexico, marking a decline compared to previous years: 7, 10, and 12 journalists were killed in 2012, 2011, and 2010, respectively.

But before we allow for talk of progress, let us consider another pair of statistics: 69 journalists have been murdered in Mexico in the past 10 years; in zero of those cases have the perpetrators been brought to justice.

Investigations at the state level, where they occur at all, are incomplete at best and farcical at worst. The recent trial of a suspect in the murder of Regina Martínez in Veracruz, for example, has been dismissed as a parody of due process (the suspect's conviction was overturned in the face of evidence that his conviction had been extracted under torture). At the federal level, a special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression has existed since 2006 but has precious little to show for it, despite an important constitutional change that dramatically increased its power.

But in Mexico, even the decline in journalist killings itself must be scrutinised. Given that virtually no advancements have been made in fighting impunity, it is feared that this statistical improvement is, in fact, due to the reestablishment of a corrupt balance of power by the new national government. Indeed, it may simply be that a nexus of corrupt interests among government officials, organised crimes, and the media itself has replaced violence against journalists as the easiest method for stopping the free flow of information in Mexico.

Both IPI and TI believe there is much that can be done to end impunity. For TI, bending the law, beating the system or escaping punishment - and getting away with it - define impunity for corruption. TI's efforts increase accountability and aim to make it ever more difficult for individuals, corporations and others to get away with corruption.

IPI supports the development of specific institutions and laws aimed at ensuring that journalists can work freely and safely, as well as the adherence to editorial practices that pursue the same aim.

Together we have the power to protect journalists from harm, and stop perpetrators from acting with impunity.

View a video message from IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie.

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