The global rate of unpunished murders remains stubbornly high at just below 90 percent. Senior officials in the most dangerous countries are finally acknowledging the problem — the first step in what will be a long, hard battle. By Elisabeth Witchel


As Impunity Pledges Offer Hope,
Focus Turns to Action

By Elisabeth Witchel

At the presidential residence Los Pinos, Mexico’s Felipe Calderón Hinojosa expressed regret for the growing death toll among journalists. “It pains me,” he told a CPJ delegation in 2010, “that Mexico is seen as one of the most dangerous places for the profession.” At his office in Islamabad, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari accepted responsibility for unchecked, anti-press violence. “The protection of journalists is in my mandate,” he told CPJ representatives in 2011. At Malacañang Palace in Manila, senior Justice Department officials laid out plans to win convictions in dozens of journalist murders, a commitment later reiterated by President Benigno Aquino III. And at the headquarters of Russia’s national investigations agency, top officials opened their files and agreed to restart several cold journalist murder cases.

Video: Banding Together to Fight Impunity

Since 2009, heads of state and senior officials in many of the world’s most dangerous nations for the press have lined up to acknowledge the scourge of impunity and promised in meetings with CPJ to take action. Their promises are still largely unfulfilled, but high-level recognition of the issue has provided a foundation for what advocates expect will be a long campaign against impunity.

The official attitude has not always been this way. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo once derided CPJ’s research as “exaggerated,” while Russian officials long refused to discuss any details of their work on journalist murders. But several years of intensive advocacy by numerous press freedom groups, human rights bodies, and journalists around the world have pushed the issue of deadly anti-press violence higher on the international agenda. In September, UNESCO convened a two-day meeting of U.N. agencies and representatives of member states to develop a long-term plan to promote the safety of journalists and end impunity. A draft of the plan offers little to hold nations accountable, but it would establish emergency response programs and place the issue of impunity onto the wider U.N. development agenda.

“We have hope,” said Nadezhda Azhgikhina, executive secretary of the Russian Union of Journalists, who said the campaigning has influenced her government’s decisions for the better. Russia’s impunity rate, while still exceedingly high, has inched downward in the past two years. “And even more,” she said, “beatings are taken more seriously. People are ready to demand justice.”

This public pressure yielded some notable progress in 2011. In Russia, two people were convicted in the 2009 double murder of reporter Anastasiya Baburova and human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov. In Ukraine, authorities brought a high-ranking ex-Interior Ministry official to trial on charges of strangling and beheading online journalist Georgy Gongadze in 2000. In the United States, grassroots pressure pushed authorities to bring to trial and convict the masterminds behind the killing of Oakland editor Chauncey Bailey. With prosecutors bringing several successful cases over the past six years, Brazil’s record of impunity has shown signs of improvement. And in Colombia, a recent conviction and a drop in lethal violence have nudged the country’s impunity rate downward.

Yet press advocates can muster only the most guarded optimism given this cold reality: More than 500 journalist murders–most of them far lower in profile than that of Bailey or Gongadze–remain unsolved worldwide over the past two decades. CPJ research shows the impunity rate across the world remains stubbornly high, hovering just below 90 percent, and largely unchanged over the past five years.

Roland Bless, principal adviser to the media freedom representative of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said advocacy has led to improvements in nations throughout his region. But he added: “I can only hope this raised awareness will translate into realities on the ground for media professionals, but I would not be too optimistic on these issues.

“It seems to be a battle of many years.”

For an idea of how the battle will unfold, look to several key cases and countries.

When Aquino took office in the Philippines in 2010, he pledged to stop the killings of journalists and to end a decades-old culture of impunity. His ability to deliver is being severely tested by the trial of dozens of suspects in the November 23, 2009, massacre in Maguindanao province. More than 30 media workers were among the 57 people killed in a horrific, politically motivated ambush. Government prosecutors, law enforcement authorities, and judicial officials have come under increasing criticism for what many see as the sluggish, unfocused handling of the case. More than two years have passed and the courts are still hearing bail arguments. Of 195 total suspects, only 70 had been arraigned by late 2011 and at least 100 were still at large. For many international observers, whether the Philippines can successfully prosecute the perpetrators of this large-scale atrocity will be a lasting measure of the nation’s commitment to the rule of law and effective government.

Groups in the Philippines have also criticized the government for neglecting its promises of systemic reform. The witness protection program is still chronically short of resources, forensics expertise remains sorely lacking, and Philippine court rules are still routinely abused by defendants seeking to delay prosecutions. In the Maguindanao case, defense lawyers have filed a stream of motions, many of them duplicative, that challenge the very foundation of the prosecution, from the validity of arrest warrants to the standing of the trial judge.

“I feel dismayed by the slow trial. Suspects are still at large, and what we really want, and what we pray for, is their capture,” said Mary Grace Morales, whose husband and sister, both journalists, were murdered in the Maguindanao ambush. Dozens of free expression organizations worldwide tried to make sure that international attention to the case did not wane. On the second anniversary of the massacre, CPJ and the other groups held the first International Day to End Impunity to highlight the Maguindanao slayings and other unsolved journalist murders.

In Russia, advocates are looking at recent developments with wary but hopeful eyes. Not only did prosecutors win a conviction in the Baburova slaying, investigators reported progress in the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, which is seen as a test of Russia’s will to prosecute sensitive cases involving powerful figures. A new investigation led in 2011 to the arrests of two suspects and charges against a third in the killing. Among those in custody is a former high-level police officer accused of helping to organize the killing.

But prosecutors failed before in the Politkovskaya murder, bringing a sloppily prepared case to trial that ended in the 2008 acquittals of three men charged as accomplices. Even now, the masterminds of the crime have yet to be identified. Sergey Sokolov, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya’s paper, told a Council of Europe forum that the Russian criminal justice system has been incapable thus far of holding politically connected people accountable for crimes. “One way or another, these are people connected to power, which in turn means that they are connected to big money and criminality,” he said. And that, Sokolov added, has meant a free pass in the criminal justice system.

In Ukraine, 11 years after the murder of Georgy Gongadze, prosecutors opened a trial in July against former Interior Ministry Gen. Aleksei Pukach on charges that he carried out the horrific crime. Three other Interior Ministry officers had been convicted earlier on conspiracy charges related to the murder. In a potentially groundbreaking move, prosecutors also indicted former President Leonid Kuchma in March on abuse-of-office charges in connection with the plot.

But the case against Kuchma fell apart before the year was out. After Ukraine’s Constitutional Court tossed out a key audiotape said to implicate the ex-president, a trial court dismissed the charges in December. And advocates were less than sanguine about prospects in the Pukach trial, which was being conducted entirely in private. The presiding panel of judges sealed the proceedings after finding that the evidence against Pukach–a former chief of the Interior Ministry’s surveillance department–included state secrets. The judges did not address why they closed the entire trial, rather than only portions of the proceedings. The trial was pending in late year.

Gongadze’s widow, Myroslava, has waged a relentless decade-long campaign to secure justice in her husband’s murder. While deeply skeptical of Ukrainian authorities, Gongadze said the new proceedings had provided “a new opportunity to pursue justice in this case. … Is the prosecutor’s office professional and able enough to investigate? That is the question.”

Gongadze said the outside pressure offered by international courts had made a difference in her husband’s case. Years ago, when it seemed clear Ukrainian authorities would not prosecute the killers on their own initiative, Gongadze brought a case before the European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe’s adjudication body. The court’s mandate allows it to review alleged violations of human rights in member states when all domestic avenues have been exhausted. In 2005, the court found that Ukraine had violated several articles of the European Convention on Human Rights–notably in failing to protect the journalist’s life or investigate his death–and ordered that it pay damages of 100,000 euros (about US$118,000 at the time).

“I was struggling for a way to push the government to stay invested,” Gongadze said. “The attention of the international community was very important–crucial. At the same time, it was not enough to speak about the case. You needed a judicial mechanism to find justice.”

A perceived weakness of the European Court and other similar, regional courts is the inability to directly enforce decisions against recalcitrant states. When the Media Foundation of West Africa filed a case against the Gambia with the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States concerning “Chief” Ebrimah Manneh, a journalist who disappeared in state custody, no government representatives bothered to attend the proceedings. The court ruled against the Gambia in 2008 and ordered damages for Manneh’s family, but the ruling was ignored by the nation’s leaders. Nevertheless, Media Foundation Director Kwame Karikari said he believes the case, along with regional and international advocacy, has played a role in deterring new attacks against journalists in West Africa.

Gongadze said the bully pulpit of the regional courts should not be underestimated. “In my 11 years, what had the most effect was the European Court of Human Rights. I was able to appeal to the court and for a few years it kept the Ukrainian government alert. They had to respond to questions by the court,” she said.

“What it offers is a definitive judgment,” says Bill Bowring, a human rights attorney and co-founder of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre, which specializes in bringing cases to the court. In 2011, the center filed a petition to open a case on behalf of the mother of Russian journalist Maksim Maksimov, who disappeared in 2004 and was ruled dead in 2006. The submission asked the court to rule whether Russia had fostered a climate of impunity in cases of anti-press violence, which could set an important precedent in other unsolved cases. In September 2010, the European Court ruled that Turkey had failed to protect the life and free-expression rights of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in 2007 even though he had notified authorities of a series of death threats. The Turkish government has since set up a special commission to oversee the prosecution, although domestic efforts are still heavily criticized for focusing on low-level conspirators.

In the Americas, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has rarely been used as direct recourse for justice; instead, regional journalists under threat tend to seek immediate responses to security risks, according to Michael Camilleri, a human rights specialist for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “They come to the system typically over protection matters,” said Camilleri, who works in the office of the special rapporteur for free expression. The court can rule that a member country is obliged to take protective action, while the commission can undertake country visits in cases of great concern.

National journalist security programs in the region have had mixed results. Under Colombia’s protection program, a committee of government officials and civil society representatives meets regularly to assess the security needs of journalists under threat. In some cases, the government assigns direct protection such as security guards, while in other cases it supports tactics such as relocation. The program is often cited for helping to reduce anti-press violence, although critics say it has doubled as a surveillance tool for the Colombian government. Still, said Camilleri, “there are elements that are useful to other countries in thinking about how a serious protection program can be put in place, particularly in terms of the scale of government investment needed.”

In November 2010, Mexico announced the creation of its own protection program based on Colombia’s model. But in its first full year, the Mexican program was limited and ineffectual, a CPJ analysis found. Just eight journalists were offered protection, and most of them told CPJ that the services were of little value. “The budget commitments are not there to do it on the scale that is needed,” Camilleri said of Mexico’s program. “The government understands that it needs to do something and has reiterated to the rapporteurship its willingness to move forward. But journalists continue to be killed while the program struggles to get off the ground.” Brazil’s security program, created in 2004, has been similarly criticized for insufficient funding and administration.

Brazil in many ways reflects both the challenges and opportunities of the worldwide anti-impunity effort. A persistently dangerous place for the press–19 journalists have been killed in reprisal for their work in the past two decades–Brazil has had recent success in prosecuting journalist murders. Nationally, the profession is well-organized and vocal in pushing for arrests and prosecutions in anti-press attacks.

“Every case of menace or murder of journalists is immediately denounced by a large group of people demanding this crime be punished. Such ‘noise’ leads authorities to do their job in a more effective way,” said Clarinha Glock, a Brazilian investigative reporter who works for the Inter American Press Association’s Impunity Project.

Brazil remains a deadly place for the press, particularly in the northeast provincial areas. At least one Brazilian journalist was murdered in direct relation to his work in 2011, and four others were slain in unclear circumstances. “You have to consider that Brazil is a large country,” Glock said. “The effect of pressure from journalists in São Paulo is different when the crime is in the countryside of the northeast states, which are very, very far from the main newspapers and tend to be forgotten and not punished as they should be.”

In the last six years, however, perpetrators have been sentenced in at least five journalist slayings, and authorities have won convictions against masterminds in at least two cases, a significant achievement compared with other violent countries where senior figures are rarely prosecuted. In 2009, for example, a Brazilian court sentenced a military police sergeant for plotting the murder of reporter Luiz Carlos Barbon Filho, who had exposed corruption in police ranks.

Brazilians cite the case of television reporter Tim Lopes, who was tortured and beheaded in 2002, as a turning point in the impunity effort there. Journalists came together to form the Association of Brazilian Investigative Journalists, or ABRAJI, to complete Lopes’ work and pursue justice in his slaying. Glock said the association has galvanized Brazil’s news media. “ABRAJI has improved a natural net of communication,” she said. “They have a great capacity to unite and spread information about impunity, laws, how to obtain accurate information, how to work ethically.”

Similarly, in the United States, colleagues banded together to thwart impunity. After the 2007 Bailey murder in Oakland, Bay Area journalists created the Chauncey Bailey Project to finish his reporting and shed light on his killing.

Thomas Peele, a reporter who worked on the project, recalled that the gunman confessed shortly after he shot Bailey, but police seemed uninterested in pursuing any other suspects. “It was pretty clear from the beginning that this was not a solo act by the gunman,” Peele said. “Some time went by and we began to see no evidence that police were investigating beyond the initial confession.”

The Bailey Project did its own investigative work and reported regularly through multiple media outlets about evidence the police had failed to pursue. “We published–a lot,” said Peele. “There was incriminating video, cell phone records, a bunch of things that the police were not following up.” Evidence exposed by the Bailey Project led to the arrest, trial, and, in 2011, convictions of two additional suspects, including the man who ordered the killing. Both are in prison for life without parole.

There is one thread that runs through the successes, however qualified they may be: unceasing pressure, attention, and action by advocates, family, and colleagues. “We were rather relentless,” Peele said. “We pursued the story until something happened.”

Elisabeth Witchel is the U.K.-based consultant for CPJ’s Global Campaign Against Impunity. Witchel launched CPJ’s campaign in 2006.

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