Crimes against journalists: An epidemic of impunity

Crimes against journalists: An epidemic of impunity
5 min read
02 Nov, 2016
Comment: Today marks International day to end impunity for crimes against journalists. But UN resolutions do little to combat corrupt institutions where impunity reigns, writes Fadi Qadi
Demonstrators in Turkey protest against the imprisonment of journalists [Getty]

Since 1992, the New York based non-governmental group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has recorded the killing of 1210 journalists worldwide.

This figure only includes journalists killed with 'motive confirmed' indicating that the group was able to confirm their killing as work-related and "that a journalist was murdered in direct reprisal for his or her work".

Needless to say, such a rigid methodology leaves a good bulk of cases involving killing of journalists without confirmed motives - at least on the records of CPJ - although it still establishes a factual record of cases in which journalists were killed.

Murdering journalists, because of who they are and what they do, is hardly trivial. As CPJ and other international groups concerned with the safety of journalists have noted, these murders are 'motivated' by reasons to retaliate against, take revenge and or silence journalists by taking away the source of power they possess: informing the public.

The Safety of Journalists program at the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) provides a distinction between targeted and cross-fire killing, and accidental death of journalists.

For a crime to take a place there need to be elements of perpetration, motive and a criminal. Accepting, at least theoretically, that when journalists are killed in cross-fire in a war zone, the elements of crime are not quite evident; the targeted killing of journalists meets the threshold of crime.

This, however, does not mean that all journalists killed in cross-fire war zones were not targeted. In January of this year for example, the IFJ reported the killing of seven media workers when the bus they were riding was targeted by a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The incident was largely reported as a targeted attack against media workers because Taliban threatened earlier to treat media outlets those workers belonged to as 'military targets'. Several other civilians were also killed in that incident.

In armed conflicts and war zones, condemnation has no power to stop kidnapping, taking journalists hostage and murdering them

Journalists are also killed in non-war zones. CPJ's breakdown of Beats Covered by Victims is very telling.

From the beginning of 2016 (up until the present), 71 percent of those journalists killed covered war, followed by 41 percent - politics, 21 percent - crime, 21 - corruption and 18 percent Human Rights issues.

The CPJ data tells us not to jump into conclusions about where and why journalists are killed, and that there is no clear pattern. According to the CPJ, of journalists killed in 2015, 69 percent covered politics, 47 percent covered war and 40 percent covered human rights.

Crimes against journalists are often particularly appalling. On November 2 2013, two French journalists; Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were kidnapped and killed in Mali shortly after they reportedly interviewed a local political leader.

Mali had been witnessing intense fighting that involved several armed groups including jihadist movements. Their death was not the first of its kind where journalists were killed while carrying out their reporting duties, but it probably sparked an increased attention to targeting and killing of journalists.

A year later, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution which marked the date on which the two French journalists were killed, as the 'International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists' (2nd November).

Crimes against journalists are crimes against society as a whole

But General Assembly resolutions, given their nature, are not binding. According to the resolution, member states (governments) are encouraged to introduce protective and monitoring measures as well as "to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, speedy and effective investigations into all alleged violence against journalists."

While the text of the resolution indicates that it urges member states to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity, those measures are very much discretionary and marked with ambiguity.

An example of this is article 6 which calls on states to introduce legislative measures. It does not, however define what measures should be taken in order to hold perpetrators accountable or to deconstruct the system of impunity in a country where corrupt institutions and individuals hold stronger powers than, for instance, the judiciary.

Impunity is perhaps the epidemic of the new century. In her message commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists in November 2015, UNESCO's General Director, Irina Bokova, explained the paradox of impunity by stating the obvious - complete failure: "Fewer than one in ten cases involving the killing of journalists is ever resolved."

Condemning crimes against journalists is not the answer nor is it the solution. In armed conflicts and war zones, condemnation has no power to stop kidnapping, taking journalists hostage and murdering them.

Equally, respect of international humanitarian law concerned with warfare seems to have nosedived in recent years, especially in areas where non-state armed groups gained significant powers while showing little recognition of international law.

Impunity is perhaps the epidemic of the new century

In April of this year, the Paris-based organisation Reporters without Borders (RSF) called for the creation of a special representative to the UN Secretary-General for the safety of journalists. The group said its call aimed at urging the establishment of a "concrete mechanism" that enforces international law which could reduce the number of journalists killed every year while on duty.

Not too long after that, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted in September (without vote) what was considered a ground-breaking resolution on the safety of journalists.

This resolution, unlike the one by UN General Assembly establishing the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, explicitly provided States with guidelines on instruments to employ to counter impunity for crimes against journalists and enhance their safety.

Nonetheless, this resolution, like previous ones, does not create the mechanism which RSF called for, and it does not address failure to implement international law in war zones.

Crimes against journalists are crimes against society as a whole, and if we detach the concept of society from its state-centered context, crimes against journalists are crimes against all societies' right to be informed.

Fighting impunity, on the other hand, is not only fighting those who kill, but also fighting the corrupt institutions that produce them. That could be each and every element of today's political systems everywhere.

Fadi Al-Qadi is Amman-based Middle East and North Africa human rights, civil society and media commentator. Twitter: @fqadi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.