On the International Day to End Impunity (23 November), ARTICLE 19 is calling on States to end the cycle of impunity for attacks on those who exercise their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. We are deeply concerned that 2013 has witnessed a marked increase in violence and other abuses against peaceful protesters and the media and bloggers covering protests.
Impunity means a failure to bring the perpetrators and instigators of human rights violations to justice. When someone acts with impunity, it means that their actions have no consequences. Intimidation, threats, attacks and murders go without investigation and punishment, and no redress is provided to victims.
The rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly are closely related and are crucial to the functioning of any democracy. The many protests around the globe in recent years have demonstrated this, with mass movements achieving considerable success in demanding greater accountability from governments.
Although the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly may be restricted in order to safeguard public order, States too often disregard international standards which also require restrictions to be both necessary and provided for by law.
ARTICLE 19's monitoring shows that States are flagrantly disregarding their positive obligation to protect and facilitate the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Throughout 2013, ARTICLE 19 has witnessed a marked increase in impunity for violations of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly. These include:
- Impunity for the inappropriate, excessive or unlawful use of force against protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly;
- Impunity for attacks on the media and bloggers providing independent coverage of assemblies and of policing operations.
Impunity for unlawful violence against assemblies
ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the rise in excessive and unlawful use of force by law enforcement officials during protests, including peaceful protests.
In Egypt, the authorities have yet to announce any investigation into the killing of 57 protesters on 6 October 2013 during demonstrations against the removal of President Morsi. This followed a series of demonstrations ending in violence since July 2013, with as many as 1300 people estimated to have lost their lives. However, only one case, involving the deaths of 37 detainees on 18 August 2013, has been opened.
In Russia, left-wing activist Alexei Gaskarov was arrested on 28 April 2013, on charges of 'participation in mass disorder' and 'inflicting injury on an official' during a protest that took place on 6 May 2012. During the protest, Gaskarov was kicked in the face by a police officer, whilst sitting on the ground surrounded by special police forces. On 28 May 2012, he submitted a complaint to the police which was rejected, despite the fact that he presented video evidence of the abuse.
In Turkey on 10 June 2013, Ali İsmail Korkmaz died from his injuries after being reportedly beaten with sticks and truncheons by plain clothed police officers during the Gezi protests in Eskişehir. Although an investigation was initiated and a number of individuals arrested, it is reported that police officers deleted crucial evidence, allowing most of the suspects to evade justice. Currently, five out of eight suspects have been jailed, and only one policeman, M.S., has been given a life sentence for “premeditated murder”.
In Cambodia on 13 November of 2013, protests erupted when police tried to break up a garment factory strike of approximately 1000 workers demanding better pay and working conditions. Riot police used batons, guns and tear gas in response to the protest, resulting in over 30 arrests, with eight people wounded and one woman shot and killed. No investigation has been launched into the use of force, or into the killing or the injuries. Many similar incidents involving police brutality have taken place in the country.
Excessive use force against protesters
Excessive use of force violates international law which clearly states that force should never be used against peaceful protests, and that non-peaceful protests should only be dispersed as a last resort and in exceptional circumstances.
Any use of force by the authorities against protests, whether peaceful or violent, must comply with the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (UN Basic Principles) and the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (UN Code of Conduct). Regard must be paid to the right to life and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Each of these rights is absolute and cannot be derogated from, even during emergencies.
Where the use of force is used inappropriately, excessively or unlawfully against protesters, there is an obligation on the State to speedily and effectively investigate and prosecute abuses and to provide redress to victims.
Impunity for attacks on the media and bloggers reporting on protests
Violence and attacks against journalists and bloggers are attacks on everybody's right to freedom of expression. They deprive people of access to information and create a climate of fear, leading to self-censorship. Impunity for these violations makes the situation even worse.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned that journalists and bloggers who report on protests and the policing operations of protests are increasingly vulnerable to attack and intimidation by law enforcement agencies. New technologies allow more people to contemporaneously share information on demonstrations and police conduct, but as well as enhancing accountability, they also leave people more vulnerable to attack.
In Mexico, ARTICLE 19 recorded 46 direct attacks against journalists while reporting on a massive demonstration that took place on 2 October 2013 in which citizen journalists and freelancers were specially targeted. 32 of these attacks were committed by law enforcement agencies.
In Russia, during demonstrations that took place in Moscow between 6 and 9 May 2012, at least a dozen journalists were arrested and four reporters injured by police while reporting on the streets. No investigations have been initiated.
In Turkey, the media reported that as of September 2013, 153 journalists had been injured and 39 detained in relation to the Gezi Park protests. Two of the three journalists arrested remain in prison. Although there have been calls for a Parliamentary enquiry, nobody has been prosecuted for these violations.
International law requires that States protect, promote, and respect the right to freedom of expression and media freedom at all times, including during protests. Journalists and bloggers, play an important role in informing the public about protests. In addition, a media presence, and increasingly a social media presence, acts as a safeguard for participants' rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
Any violation of the right of journalists and bloggers to freedom of expression when reporting on protests or the police operations relating to them, including the arbitrary confiscation or destruction of equipment, must be effectively and speedily investigated, and redress provided to victims.
 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, 21 May 2012, A/HRC/20/27, at para. 48.