Defining success in the fight against impunity

For the second time this year, the U.N. Security Council took up the issue of protection of journalists. In a discussion today sponsored by the French and Guatemalan delegations, and open to NGOs, speaker after speaker and country after country hammered home the same essential facts: The vast majority of journalists murdered around the world are local reporters working in their own country, covering human rights, corruption, conflict and politics. In nine out of ten of these murders, no one is ever prosecuted.

It is extremely encouraging that the issue of impunity now features so prominently on the U.N. agenda and that there is such a clear consensus about the gravity of the problem. Many member states made similar interventions at the first Security Council debate on the topic, held in July. Last month, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution declaring November 2 the International Day to End Impunity in crimes against journalists. The resolution is expected to be formally ratified next week.

On December 30, CPJ will release its annual tally of journalists killed around the world while carrying out their work. Currently, the toll stands at 52, lower than last year but still intolerably high. At least 20 journalists have been killed in Syria, six in Egypt, five in Pakistan, and three in Brazil. Others have fallen in Colombia, India, Iraq, Mali, the Philippines, Russia, Somalia, and Turkey. As usual, they were overwhelmingly local journalists reporting local news.

Many of the issues covered by these murdered journalists involve transnational issues firmly on the Security Council’s agenda – terrorism and counterterrorism, human trafficking, international organized crime.

We have seen over and over how the killing of even one journalist can traumatize a whole society, silencing critical debate and stifling the flow of information. We cannot allow violent forces to dictate the permissible limits of expression.

Combating impunity in the killings of journalists seems intractable until you consider the facts.

In 2008, CPJ launched its Impunity Index which annually spotlights the countries around the world where journalists are slain and the killers go free. The list is not long–about a dozen countries are included each year.

These countries need to be the focus of international attention and advocacy. Some are undergoing conflict, but others like Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico, Russia, and the Philippines, are not.

Countries that demonstrate the political will to solve these crimes should be given the support and resources to achieve their goal, as is contemplated under the U.N. Plan of Action on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which is being implemented by UNESCO.

Countries that demonstrate a callous indifference to these killings should confront the opprobrium of the entire world.

Talk is important. But what really matters is results.

A number of excellent suggestions came out of today’s meeting. My counterpart at Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, proposed that Article 8 of the International Criminal Court’s statute be amended so that “deliberate attacks on journalists, media workers and associated personnel” are defined as war crimes. He also called for creation of a group of independent experts to assist the UN Secretariat in the implementation of international law to protect journalists.

Frank LaRue, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, called for a U.N. resolution protecting journalists similar to the one passed on human rights defenders. And Irina Bukova, the director-general of UNESCO, announced that the organization has partnered with outside groups to study special risks faced by female journalists.

These are important initiatives, but, ultimately, progress in the fight against impunity must be achievable and measurable.

According to CPJ data compiled since 1992, 88 percent of all killings of journalists are carried out with impunity. If the international attention is meaningful and the U.N. Plan of Action is effective, then that number must decline over time.

CPJ will continue to support all efforts undertaken by the international community to combat impunity. And we will rely on our data to measure success and ensure accountability.