Combating impunity, from commitment to action

This afternoon we sent out a press release announcing a $100,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to support CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity. The campaign enters its third year in 2011, having achieved some significant successes, including high-level commitment to prosecute the killers of journalist in the Philippines and Russia. Our goal in the year ahead is to turn those commitments into results.

CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity began as a pilot project, focusing on two countries where the killers of journalists routinely go free. While violence against the press is common to both Russia and the Philippines the countries have little else in common. The Philippines features a rollicking media but a weak central government. In Russia, with some notable exceptions, the press is toothless and the government itself exerts powerful influence over all aspects of society. The Philippines, highly dependent on international aid, is vulnerable to international pressure. Russia bristles at any outside criticism of what it views as its internal affairs.

It’s precisely because they are so different that we wanted to test whether systematic and focused advocacy could make a difference in both places. While violence against journalist has continued in Russia and the Philippines, government responses in both nations have changed as a result of our engagement.

For example, in the Philippines, government officials used to routinely challenge our research and decry our description of the country as one of the world’s most dangerous for the media as “an exaggeration.” Then, in November 2010, more than 30 journalists and media workers were slaughtered in what became known as the Maguindanao massacre. The killings triggered a national crisis.

When CPJ visited Manila last year soon after President Benigno  Aquino took office, we found the government open and highly receptive to our concerns. No one denied the importance of the impunity issue or sought to challenge our research. Instead, they met with our delegation and pledged to pursue justice not only in the Maguindanao massacre but in the other media killings that preceded it.

Likewise in Russia, where CPJ has sent delegations the last three years, we found during our visit in September that authorities were highly receptive to our concerns. The country’s top investigator, Aleksandr Barstrykin, hosted our delegation and promised to report directly to President Dmitry Medvedev. Officials welcomed our research, and shared their own findings with us. They also made a public commitment to justice.

While we welcome such commitments as a positive sign, we obviously remain skeptical of the government’s intention in both places. The question in the year ahead is how to turn these commitments into concrete action–meaning arrests, prosecutions, and convictions.

In designing the Global Campaign Against Impunity, CPJ also developed a statistical tool for measuring progress: the Impunity Index. Using detailed date compiled by CPJ staff, the index calculates the number of unsolved killings as a percentage of a country’s population. When we released our 2010 Index, the Philippines ranked third, with 55 unsolved killings, and Russia ranked eighth, with 18.

The only way for a country to reduce its ranking is to solve these crimes. We hope that Russia and Philippines will decline in their ranking when our next index is released later this year. We are encouraged that suspects in the latest murder in the Philippines, which took place earlier this week, were quickly apprehended.

This year, with support from Knight, we will continue to demand accountability in Russia and the Philippines. At the same time, we are intensifying our efforts to combat injustice in other places around the world where the journalists are routinely killed, from Pakistan to Mexico. We do this because we are outraged to see our colleagues killed for their work. But we also believe that violent forces must be challenged in their efforts to censor and control the news.