Here is a date for every journalist’s diary: 23 November. It has been chosen as the second International Day to End Impunity by members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).
It is aimed at highlighting the way in which many murders of those who exercised their right to freedom of expression – such as journalists, bloggers and authors – remain unsolved and, very often, have never been investigated.
As IFEX points out, when the criminals are not brought to justice, it creates a culture of impunity, leading to still more crimes:
“People are increasingly afraid to speak out. Criticism is stifled. Hard questions don’t get asked. The powerful don’t get challenged. The result is a world where free expression is silenced.”
So it’s also a call to action, demanding justice for victims and their relatives while drawing to the world’s attention the fact that countless citizens, artists, musicians, authors, bloggers and journalists are harassed, threatened, tortured, intimidated and jailed in an attempt to silence them. Yet most of these crimes against free expression go unpunished.
The November date was chosen because it marks the third anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, the single deadliest incident for journalists in recent history, in which 58 people — including 32 journalists and media workers — were murdered in the Philippines.
Why the UN plan of action is so important
By coincidence, 23 November also marks the final day of a series of meetings in Vienna, organised by UNESCO, to agree a UN plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity.
UN agencies, member states and a variety of civil society organisations will gather to discuss its possible implementation. The plan calls for the strengthening of the office of the UN’s special rapporteur for free expression, assisting member states in developing national laws to prosecute the killers of journalists, and establishing a UN inter-agency mechanism to evaluate journalist safety.
But the New York-based press freedom body, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), warns that gaining the participation of member states, which is essential to the plan’s success, cannot be assumed.
Why? Because, according to CPJ’s research, government officials and allied paramilitary groups are suspected of being involved in more than one-third of journalist murders worldwide since 1992.
That is a higher proportion than terrorist groups or criminal gangs. It is also a fact that has so far escaped the otherwise broad discussion and working papers surrounding the UN effort.
The CPJ research has thrown up these disturbing figures: civilian government officials have probably been responsible 23% of murders; military officials for 5%; and allied paramilitary groups for another 7%.
Over the same period (1992-2012), CPJ has found opposition political groups, including terrorist organisations, as being responsible for 30% of all journalist murders; and criminal groups for 13%. No likely perpetrator has been identified in 19% of cases.
It is significant that when the plan of action was put before UNESCO delegates earlier this year for what was expected to be a routine review, several states raised objections.
The result, as reported by the CPJ’s British-based impunity campaign consultant, Elisabeth Witchell, was “a compromise resolution that allowed the plan to move ahead.”