Killing Journalists: How to Stop Perpetrator Impunity?

The recent kidnapping and killing of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, two French journalists for Radio France International (RFI), in Mali is creating an uproar in the profession and beyond. Only for 2012, 88 journalists have been killed, according to Reporters Sans Frontières, compared to 33 in “black year” 2009 (including war coverage veterans such as Anthony Shadid of The New York Times and Marie Colvin of Britain’s Sunday Time in Syria). This count is tragically fitting with the increasing figures compiled by the global network for free expression, IFEX, with data from different members of its extensive network (RSF, CPJ, IFJ, IPI, WAN-DFRA, WIPC).

The methods used range from kidnapping, hostage-taking, abduction, torture to gunning down… not to mention intimidation, imprisonment, surveillance, reprisals, court summons, confiscation of material, obligation to reveal sources and overall harassment. They show that journalists are increasingly treated as enemies or information soldiers as it were and, consequently, become a prime target. This situation contravenes human rights as it is a profession which, together with humanitarians, is generally protected by the (revised) Geneva Conventions of 1949 (journalists working independently have the same status as civilians). The motives for murdering them differ between attacks occurring during active conflict or during peacetime: in the first case, it is about silencing witnesses and creating chilling effects on expression in the population at large; in the second case, it is about ending investigations on corruption, organized crime and other illegal activities, not to mention reporting on human rights contraventions and expressing dissent on government activities. In both cases though, journalists are often alone, due to the conflictive situations they investigate, that imply to infiltrate the different parties at stake, like the rebels in Syria or the smugglers in organized crime.

Due to these escalating conditions, the fate of journalists must become an international cause as it is directly connected to censorship and chilling effects on freedom of expression. In the case of the French journalists as in many previous others, establishing the method and motive for the murders with greater precision remains to be done, and this task is often much less mediatized. Yet the real scandal behind the killings is the under-reported and under-investigated cases, especially in highly militarized countries or in fractured geopolitical areas such as North Mali or Baluchistan, not to mention Syria and Somalia where the civil war fractures are internally disruptive.

Some progress has been done since 2008, when UNESCO adopted a Decision on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, giving its International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) a central role in monitoring the follow-up of killings condemned by the Director General. It urges Member States to end impunity, and to inform the Director-General, on a voluntary basis, of the actions taken to prevent it, as well as on the status of the judicial inquiries conducted on each of the reported killings. Every two years the Director-General submits to the IPDC Council a report on The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity as a monitoring tool.  Following another decision by the IPDC Council in 2010, a UN inter-agency plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity was developed, during the first UN Inter-agency meeting held at UNESCO in September 2011. The UN Plan of Action was fully endorsed by the UN Chief Executives Board in April 2012 and a plan has been set up to produce concrete strategies by 2013-14.

While this monitoring work is in progress, some authoritarian regimes and some states at war are not likely to adopt good practices to fight the very impunity that protects their own wrong doings. Such countries don’t consider freedom of expression as an enabler of development or of democracy. They don’t see the killing of journalists as an attack on human rights and a blemish on their own image but mostly as real politik in a context that they seek to control totally, especially as the Arab Spring events have shown that international journalists were receiving help from national bloggers who sent data via the social networks to inform the global public opinion of the bleakness of their situation.

The solution of civil society monitoring remains the most efficient to date. Besides IFEX, the Freedom House Index (created in 1979) for instance monitors countries on three basic criteria: the legal context (laws that impact media content or allow restrictions on media operations), political influence (laws that foster state control over media) and economic pressures (laws on barriers of entry, corruption opportunities). The ranking scores are published regularly and provide an assessment of the constraints on press freedom. They are made available to civil society organisations, activists, professionals and decision-makers. While not stopping the killings, such tools point to non-democratic practices that can then be used locally to fight for progress and redress. To date, more than forty countries in regions such as Asia, the Middle East and Africa can be considered as enemies of the press, with restrictive if not lethal actions on journalists.

In such countries, the fight against impunity rests with the growth of advocacy groups from within civil society and the international awareness of risks to journalists in the face of new modes of transborder conflicts. International pressure against impunity can use the UN framework as well as the international monitoring tools but it must move more intensely to procedural guarantees and sanctions if need be as for any human rights violation. But above all, the press should serve itself first, and cover the investigations on journalist killings, even when states don’t comply readily with appropriate processes and enforcement mechanisms.  Journalists are citizens whose rights, when denied, impact civil liberties of all sorts and erode freedom of expression for all.

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