María Teresa Ronderos and Sergei Sokolov at CPJ's Impunity Summit at Columbia. (CPJ)
María Teresa Ronderos and Sergei Sokolov at CPJ's Impunity Summit at Columbia. (CPJ)

Impunity Summit: Solidarity in fighting journalist murders

Every day at CPJ, we count numbers: 18 journalists killed in Russia since 2000, 32 journalists and media workers slaughtered in the Maguindanao massacre, 88 journalists murdered over the last 10 years in Iraq. But on Tuesday night at CPJ’s Impunity Summit at Columbia University, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon clarified why we were gathered: “At the end of the day, it’s not about numbers,” he said. “It’s about people.”

More on the Summit
CPJ Blog: A symbol
CPJ’s 2010
Impunity Index

Members of a panel called “Fighting Back: Bringing the Killers of Journalists to Justice,” talked about the frustrating conditions in their home countries that allow for such high rates of impunity in their colleagues’ murders. The two-day summit, which continues today, brings together international journalists and advocates to find ways to combat impunity.

With Associated Press Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll moderating Tuesday night, panel members pointed fingers at their governments, their courts, and at media organizations for not having the courage to pursue investigations for fear of meeting the same fates as their murdered colleagues.

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the independent Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has lost five of his colleagues in targeted killings. “Do we know the last names of the masterminds of the killings? Yes, we do,” Sokolov said, clearly aware of the absurd uselessness of this information in Russia. Authorities, he said, have denied his paper’s requests to launch criminal cases “seven or eight times.”

Melinda Quintos de Jesus (CPJ)
Melinda Quintos de Jesus (CPJ)

Russia is one of several countries in which governments fail to carry out thorough investigations, actively obstruct inquiries, or refuse to release investigative results. “In the Philippines, everything functional gets perverted,” said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of the Philippines’ Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. But, she said, “We have to fight that perversion.” She added that she hoped the November massacre in Maguindanao would spur the public to realize that “it is a general culture that really lacks the rule of law.” The country ranks third on CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index, a list of countries where journalists are killed regularly and governments fail to solve the crimes.

CPJ board member María Teresa Ronderos said that in her country, Colombia, the fight against impunity has made slow but steady progress. The country has 13 unsolved murders since 2000, earning it fifth place on our Impunity Index. Ronderos described how Colombia’s Law of Justice and Peace, which granted leniency to members of illegal armed groups in exchange for demobilization and full confessions to their crimes, allowed investigators to discover, in one case, that the bodyguard of a local governor was the person ordering violence against journalists—“We now know the names, we know the modalities,” she said.

Owais Aslam Ali (CPJ)
Owais Aslam Ali (CPJ)

In Pakistan, “a large number of journalists are being killed as a result of the security environment,” said panelist Owais Aslam Ali, secretary-general of the Pakistan Press Foundation. Just this week, Ali stressed, two cameramen lost their lives in suicide bombings. “The regularity, the numbers, are horrifying,” he said.

There has been little justice in the cases of murdered journalists in Pakistan—authorities have won convictions in only one case in the past decade, the murder of U.S. reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002. Ali described how many journalists who have not practiced self-censorship as a form of protection have become refugees in their own country, forced to leave their homes, unable to educate their children. “Journalists covering the war in Pakistan have paid a very heavy price,” he said, plainly frustrated.

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, ended the forum on a frank note, saying that we are “at a very primitive stage of combating this problem.” Bollinger, a lawyer and former law school dean, seemed inspired, however, by remarks from Michael Klebnikov during a question-and-answer period in which he suggested that we champion judges who successfully combat impunity in the murder of journalists. Klebnikov’s brother, Paul Klebnikov, was shot to death while he was the editor of Forbes Russia in 2004.

After the panel ended, I approached Sokolov to ask him a pretty blunt question. I wanted to know whether he thought the summit would have any real-world implications for impunity in Russia. Before his translator had finished relaying the question, he interrupted: “Yes, of course. Because the worst thing in the world is to feel isolated. International attention to impunity is the only thing that can make a difference.”