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The Bees Are Coming, or: When a swarm is a good thing

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the ensuing cover-up were carried out by people who apparently believed they were untouchable. And why wouldn't they? On this fifth International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the guilty are still rarely held to account.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, on 2 November, the murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues to dominate the news cycle.

His murder was egregious. The attempted cover-up was bizarrely incompetent.

It was the behaviour of people who believe that they are untouchable. And why wouldn't they? In the case of murdered journalists, it is rare that the guilty are held to account.

This may turn out to be one of the exceptions. If it is, it will be largely due to the global media attention centred on this case, and the combined efforts of so many, some in and some outside of the media spotlight.

Coming together in a concerted action, to have a greater impact, has been at the heart of the IFEX network since its inception 26 years ago. It is how we work to defend the rights of people to express themselves freely, and without fear.

When the worst happens, it is how we work to hold their killers accountable.

Lately, the worst is happening far too often. Each year, UNESCO maintains a list of journalists who have been killed around the world.

As I write this, there are 86 names on the 2018 list.

It's important to note that beside those 86 women and men stand many more. Add the names of their husbands, wives, children, and friends, whose lives will never be the same. Add the names of their colleagues in the media, who must decide, every day, whether doing their job is worth risking their lives and those of their loved ones.

But then, think of the people working to bring about accountability for these crimes, to change the climate where impunity continues to flourish. There are so many of us: human rights defenders, activists, lawyers - even some politicians - as well as thousands of others around the world who persist, even when there is no public attention, no articles in the news, and little hope - but who refuse to let the light go out on these cases.

On this International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, we acknowledge all those who work in this shared endeavor and continue to show that, together, our voices move mountains.

We continue to advocate in the cases of the violent crimes committed against Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, Cambodian activist and broadcaster Kem Ley, Bahraini photojournalist Ahmed Ismail Hassan, Pakistani reporter Shan Dahar, Gambian Editor Musa Saidykhan and journalist Ebrima Manneh, and Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, among so many others.

Persistence pays off. We've seen perpetrators jailed in Bedoya Lima's case, reparations paid to Manneh's family. After an extended campaign to address the climate of impunity in Paraguay organised by IFEX's Latin America and Caribbean network, IFEX-ALC, the man behind the 2014 murder of Paraguayan journalist Pablo Medina was found guilty. It was the first time that someone who ordered an attack on a journalist in Paraguay had been sentenced for that crime.

Before he was killed, Khashoggi had been a prime target of daily, unrelenting online abuse from a Riyadh-based troll farm that aimed to smother the voices of all Saudi dissidents. One of his last acts was in support of a volunteer 'army' working to combat those trolls in the online sphere.

They call themselves "the Electronic Bees" and, just eleven days before his death, Khashoggi wrote on Twitter that the Bees were coming.

As an image of human rights defenders, it's both compelling and inspiring – a fiercely committed swarm, with a shared focus and the power of numbers. Those who would threaten or disturb us should take heed.


Annie Game is the Executive Director of IFEX, the global network of organisations defending and promoting freedom of expression and information. Learn more about the work of the IFEX network at ifex.org.

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on November 1, 2018.

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