A woman stands next to a banner reading "No more impunity" in Colombia. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)
A woman stands next to a banner reading "No more impunity" in Colombia. (AFP/Raul Arboleda)

Will UN plan address impunity, security for journalists?

Here are the facts:

  • A journalist is killed in the line of duty somewhere around the world once every eight days.
  • Nearly three out of four are targeted for murder. The rest are killed in the crossfire of combat, or on dangerous assignments such as street protests.
  • Local journalists constitute the large majority of victims in all groups.
  • The murderers go unpunished in about nine out of 10 cases.
  • The overall number of journalists killed, and the number of journalists murdered, have each climbed since the 1990s.

UNESCO–the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization–is trying to address this global problem of anti-press violence, one that threatens everyone’s right to seek and convey news and opinion. The organization has convened a series of meetings with U.N. agencies, member states, and civil society organizations to put into practice a U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

Among its many security-related measures, the plan calls for strengthening the office of the U.N. special rapporteur for free expression, assisting member states in developing national laws to prosecute the killers of journalists, and establishing a U.N. inter-agency mechanism to evaluate journalist safety. The first implementation meeting took place in Paris in September 2011 and the second will occur later this month in Vienna. Its final day will coincide with the International Day to End Impunity, the third anniversary of a brutal ambush in the Philippines that claimed the lives of more than 30 journalists and media workers.

The participation of member states will be essential to the success of the effort–but gaining their cooperation is not a given. Here is one reason why:

Government officials and allied paramilitary groups are suspected of being involved in more than one-third of journalist murders worldwide since 1992, CPJ research shows. That’s 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 U.N. effort.

Since 1992, CPJ has identified specific groups as the most likely perpetrators of journalist murder cases worldwide. CPJ has found civilian government officials as likely being responsible for 23 percent of murders; military officials for 5 percent; and allied paramilitary groups for another 7 percent. Over the same period, CPJ has found opposition political groups, including terrorist organizations, as being responsible for 30 percent of all journalist murders; and criminal groups for 13 percent. In 19 percent of cases, no likely perpetrator has been identified. Other likely perpetrators identified by CPJ include mobs inspired to violence and individual citizens retaliating for news coverage.

Of course many political groups are also interwoven with organized crime. More research needs to be done in the numerous cases that are unresolved. Nonetheless, the challenges facing the U.N. effort are clear.

When the plan of action went before UNESCO delegates in the spring for what was expected to be a routine review, several states raised objections that threatened to derail the plan. India, Brazil, and Pakistan–each with relatively high numbers of unsolved journalist murders–led the opposition. As my colleague Elisabeth Witchel reported: “In the end, the council adopted a compromise resolution that allowed the plan to move ahead. … But UNESCO will have to present another work plan at its executive meeting in spring 2013.”

That’s why the cooperation of member states is so important. Brazil appeared to alter its stance after encountering domestic and international criticism from CPJ and others. Within two months, Brazil reconsidered, and in September helped sponsor a resolution on journalist safety adopted at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The struggle to curb impunity in attacks on the press is likely to be as difficult as it is important. Here is another fact to weigh in the discussion. Since the first U.N. Action Plan meeting ended in September 2011 in Paris, 67 more journalists have been killed. That’s one journalist killed every six days. 

In the end, these are not just numbers. They are people like Mohamed Mohamed Turyare, an online editor in Somalia; Abdul Haq Baloch, a television reporter in Pakistan; and Abdel Karim al-Oqda, a cameraman in Syria.

UPDATED: We changed the second-to-last paragraph to correct the date of the last meeting and the number of deaths since that time.