Accounting for impunity is obligation for all states

By Elisabeth Witchel/ CPJ Impunity Campaign Consultant on November 18, 2014 4:22 PM ET

This week, members of UNESCO's International Programme for the Development of Communication will meet to discuss the director general's biannual report, which examines the cases of nearly 600 journalists killed around the world from January 1, 2006 to December 31, 2013. The report, and lacklustre response from member states who had been asked to provide status updates to the cases, highlights why the campaign to end impunity is so vital.

The findings of the report, "The Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity," are reflective of the bleak data published by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom groups, which indicates there is no justice in nine out of 10 cases of journalists murdered for their work. The findings should be the focal point of the IPDC meeting in Paris on November 20 and 21, and UNESCO's director general, Irina Bokova, should use the debate to draw attention to what states are doing about this towering level of impunity, starting with their participation in the report.

Despite Bokova asking 61 member states to submit information about cases on a voluntary basis, only 26 responded, according to the most updated version of the report available online, meaning nearly 60 percent of states didn't answer at all.

Bokova took issue with this poor response in an editorial published in the lead up to the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on November 2.

The biannual report has the potential to be an immensely useful tool--one that could promote accountability and productive inter-governmental dialogue. Countries that profess to be struggling to gain ground in the fight against impunity can benefit from learning good practices and identifying their own challenges if they take the process seriously.

But too few countries do.

It is not only the poor rate of response that is cause for concern, but the paltry contents of those responses, many of which simply state that an investigation is ongoing. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), of which CPJ is a member, highlighted the report in this year's International Day to End Impunity campaign. Among its recommendations were calls for countries to be required to provide comprehensive information on major steps taken to promote safety and tackle impunity, and for their responses to be made public by default.

CPJ reviewed a draft of the report as part of its own analysis of how states and intergovernmental organizations are addressing impunity in "The Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity in the Killings of Journalists," published last month. In the report, I noted that among the three dozen countries--including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Somalia, Nepal, and Nigeria--that failed to respond to Bokova's requests for updates, "many are mired in anti-press violence" and have longstanding records of impunity in journalists' murders. I concluded in the report that the "lacklustre effort" to provide substantive information "suggests that accounting for impunity in journalist killings is a low priority or too politically challenging, particularly for states where there is little to no follow up by the authorities."

If this reporting process continues to be marginalized by UNESCO member states, it raises the question of whether more challenging commitments, such as implementing the U.N. Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity will be met. Worse, it sends a signal to the perpetrators of journalist murders that accounting for justice in these crimes is immaterial. Delegates to the IPDC meeting this week must remind each other that they should be working together to send the opposite message.


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