COMMENTARY – In 2013, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the 2nd of November as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’.1 The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali in 2013. The attacks suffered by journalists are not only violating individual rights, but also undermining the right to information of all members of society, which stands at the root of democracy. In light of the killings and human rights abuses suffered by journalists throughout the world, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated:
“I pay tribute to the courage of all media personnel who put their lives on the line for the sake of truth. And I call for immediate action to secure justice in cases where journalists were attacked, harassed or killed.”2
Crimes and human rights violations
Journalism is a practice that carries along with it many risks. Journalists not only face risks in conflict zones, but also in peaceful contexts. “Over the past decade, more than 800 journalists have been killed for bringing news and information to the public”3 the United Nations stated. Moreover, as the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) reported, “Journalist murders are rarely isolated events. They are not usually the spontaneous act of a hothead angered by what he reads in the newspaper. All too often they are premeditated—ordered, paid for, and orchestrated.”4 If journalists are not killed they may suffer, on a daily basis, from non-fatal attacks, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment. This is also illustrated by the story of the Ethiopian bloggers of “Zone 9”, finalists at the Prix Martin Ennals 2016.
Moreover, many other factors, such as being a woman, can lead to more crimes to be committed against media actors. In fact, women journalists often experience sexual attacks, gendered violence and are often victims of discriminatory behaviours. Thus, it’s particularly important to adopt an intersectional perspective when we deal with crimes committed against journalists.
As expressed in the Finlandia Declaration, we need to acknowledge “that violations of press freedom also have an adverse impact on the right to information.”5 In fact, when a crime is committed against a journalist, not only the freedom of expression of the media actor is threatened, but also the right to information of the public. Thus, the violation of such fundamental human rights leads to a real subversion of democracy, which is in primis supported by these rights.
Impunity feeding perpetrations
Regarding the issue of impunity, as professor Cherif Bassiouni highlighted, in the past decades “massive victimization has resulted from the conduct of both State and non-State actors engaging in policies of extra-judicial execution, torture, rape and other atrocities in violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”6 In this context, impunity should be fought against as a matter of promotion of accountability and justice. In fact, accountability embodies the goal of retributive and restorative justice. It also aims to achieve “peace and reconciliation, to sanction those responsible, and to provide redress to victims.”7
Particularly, in relation to impunity and crimes against journalists, UNESCO8 has reported that only one in ten cases committed against media workers has led to a conviction. Specifically, two out of 76 cases which took place in Africa were resolved; two out of 190 cases were resolved in the Arab States region; 12 out of 179 cases were resolved in the Asia and the Pacific region; ten out of 25 cases were resolved in Europe; and 13 out of 123 cases were resolved in the Latin America and Caribbean region.9
The dangers of impunity are clear: if perpetrators are not convicted, the vicious circle of crimes and violations will continue. Impunity will have a chilling effect on all members of society, including journalists themselves. Furthermore, society could lose confidence in the effectiveness of the judicial system and the rule of law is threatened both on a national and international level. The help and support coming from government is not consistent and, as the CPJ has found out, there is a widespread “lack of political will to prosecute is the most prevalent factor behind the alarming numbers of unsolved cases.”10 Moreover, the CPJ alleged that “analyzing cases since 1992 show that state actors or government or military officials are suspected of being responsible for more than 30 percent of journalists’ murders.”11 With these factors in mind, it’s not surprising that governments are unwilling to actively participate in the fight against impunity.
For instance, in Mexico many journalists have been murdered or have disappeared for having spoken about the corruption among law enforcement, the judiciary and the political system. Mexico also witnesses the use of violence to eliminate anyone who stands against impunity. In one case, “the lead federal investigator and his replacement working on the murder of the veteran crime reporter Armando Rodríguez Carreón were murdered.”12 Anther disconcerting case is the one of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the voice of the victims of the Chechnya wars. After having been poisoned on an airplane, she was fatally shot in the hallway of her Moscow apartment building. The person behind the murder is yet to be named and to be brought to justice.13
Impunity is the main enemy of justice and if action won’t be taken soon in fostering accountability, the situation is only likely to get worse.
Female journalists in Turkey and future perspectives
Taking inspiration from the Guardian’s recent report on the current situation of journalists in Turkey, the case of Turkish women journalists will be presented.
The violation of the right to freedom of expression and information in Turkey has been occurring for several years.14 However, since the failed coup attempt in July, things have worsened: more than 160 media outlets have been shut down and approximately 100 journalists have been arrested. Moreover, since January 2016, “the International Press Institute (IPI) has logged more than 2,000 cases of online abuse, death threats, threats of physical violence, sexual abuse.”15 IPI has also found evidence of at least 20 cases where journalists were hacked and had their Twitter direct messages exposed. Another technique that has been widely used involves the attack of a journalist by a well-known figure on social media. Once that virtual attack has been carried out, it’s really difficult for a journalist to seek help and impunity is once again perpetrated.16
Female journalists, in particular, suffer the most. Gülsin Harman, coordinator of the IPI’s project On the Line, has told the Guardian that women journalists are insulted just for having their work published. As victims of a high level gendered violence, when female media actors are “criticised it is never […] without a sexual connotation.”17 According to journalist Emre Kızılkaya, “Turkey’s macho culture has exacerbated the reaction to female writers”18, who are receiving rape threats and death threats for carrying out their job.
In light of this extremely serious situation, ending impunity would be the first step towards a progressive improvement of the current state of things. However, how to reach that point?
Considering UNESCO’s work and efforts in promoting freedom of expression and information and defending journalists, Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General’s message stated: “Today, we need a new commitment by all to create a free and safe environment for journalists.”19 Ms Bokova specifically mentioned the need to effectively implement the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, spearheaded by UNESCO. Moreover, she underlined the urgency of action to be taken in order to reach Sustainable Development Goal 16.10, to ensure public access to information and to protect fundamental freedoms.20 Another relevant tool to be used is UN Resolution A/RES/68/163 which urges Member States to act against impunity and States to promote a safe environment for journalists.21 Finally, the work of NGOs shouldn’t be forgotten, since they’re always acting in the front line, and their involvement is be crucial in efficiently and effectively promoting journalists’ safety and fundamental human rights.
In conclusion, the urgency of an ultimate solution against the “rampant”22 impunity for crimes committed against journalists is clear. It is suggested in this article that a shared approach should be undertaken by all actors (international organisations, states and civil society), creating a network to implement new measures to protect journalists. Moreover, the work of the judiciary should remain independent and the promotion of the rule of law and judicial accountability always underlined. Hopefully, by accepting a real commitment and responsibility, journalists will be safeguarded in the future and their (and our) human rights efficiently implemented.
1 United Nations, “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.” Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/journalists/
2 United Nations (2016) “Secretary-General's Message for 2016”, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/journalists/2016/sgmessage.shtml
3 United Nations, Op.Cit.
4 Committee to Protect Journalists, “Campaign Against Impunity.” Available at: https://cpj.org/campaigns/impunity/
5 UNESCO (2016) “Finlandia Declaration - Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms - This Is Your Right!” Available at: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/finlandia_declaration_3_may_20...
6 BASSIOUNI M. Cherif (2000) “Combating Impunity for International Crimes” 71 U. Colo. L. Rev. 409. In: HeinOnline. Available at: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/ucollr71&div=...
8 UNESCO (2016) “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists”. Available at: http://en.unesco.org/day/endimpunity
9UNESCO (2014) “The Safety of Journalists and the Dangers of Impunity”, The International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), Report by the Director-General to the Intergovernmental Council of the IPDC, 29th Session. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002301/230101E.pdf
10 Committee to Protect Journalists (2014) “The Road to Justice – Where Impunity Thrives.” Available at: https://cpj.org/reports/2014/10/the-road-to-justice-where-impunity-thriv...
14 PEN International and PEN Norway (2014) “Surveillance, Secrecy and Self-censorship: New Digital Freedom Challenges in Turkey.” Available at: http://www.pen-international.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Surveillance...
15 SHEARLAW Maeve (2016) “Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/turkish-journalists-face-a...
19 UNESCO (2016), Op.Cit.
20 United Nations, Op.Cit.
22 United Nations (2016), Op.Cit.
MR – Research Assistant at CIPADH
BASSIOUNI M. Cherif (2000) “Combating Impunity for International Crimes” 71 U. Colo. L. Rev. 409. In: HeinOnline. Available at: http://heinonline.org/HOL/LandingPage?handle=hein.journals/ucollr71&div=...
Committee to Protect Journalists, “Campaign Against Impunity.” Available at: https://cpj.org/campaigns/impunity/
Committee to Protect Journalists (2014) “The Road to Justice – Where Impunity Thrives.” Available at: https://cpj.org/reports/2014/10/the-road-to-justice-where-impunity-thriv...
COOK Sarah (2016) “Chinese Journalism, Interrupted”, Foreign Policy. Available at: http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/06/chinese-journalism-interrupted-what-...
Free Press Unlimited (2015) “Free Press Unlimited Annual Report 2015.” Available at: https://www.freepressunlimited.org/sites/freepressunlimited.org/files/fp...
PEN International and PEN Norway (2014) “Surveillance, Secrecy and Self-censorship: New Digital Freedom Challenges in Turkey.” Available at: http://www.pen-international.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Surveillance...
SHEARLAW Maeve (2016) “Turkish journalists face abuse and threats online as trolls step up attacks”, the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/01/turkish-journalists-face-a...
UN General Assembly (2013) “Resolution 68/163. The safety of journalists and the issue of impunity”, 68th Session. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/68/163
UNESCO (2016) “Finlandia Declaration - Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms - This Is Your Right!” Available at: https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/finlandia_declaration_3_may_20...
UNESCO (2016) “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists”. Available at: http://en.unesco.org/day/endimpunity
UNESCO (2014) “The Safety of Journalists and the Dangers of Impunity”, The International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), Report by the Director-General to the Intergovernmental Council of the IPDC, 29th Session. Available at: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002301/230101E.pdf
UNESCO Communication and Information, “UNESCO Condemns Killings of Journalists: Turkey”, Press Freedom. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-ex...
United Nations, “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.” Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/journalists/
United Nations (2016) “Secretary-General's Message for 2016”, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. Available at: http://www.un.org/en/events/journalists/2016/sgmessage.shtml
United Nations (2016) “Goal 16: Promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies”, Sustainable Development Goals. Available at: http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/peace-justice/
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. Available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/UDHR/Documents/UDHR_Translations/eng.pdf