The Road to Justice

1. What Does Impunity Mean?

In 1981, the year CPJ was founded, Argentina was enmeshed in the so-called Dirty War, in which dozens of journalists were disappeared. Most were never seen again. To this day, no one has systematically documented the media murders that took place, and no one knows precisely how many journalists perished. Not surprisingly, given the information void, there was little international attention on journalists’ disappearances or the broader human rights catastrophe that many of the murdered reporters were seeking to cover.

It was not until a decade later, in 1992, that CPJ began to systematically document every instance of the killing of journalists for their work anywhere in the world. For the first several years of this exercise, our “killed list” was published on paper as an appendix to Attacks on the Press, CPJ’s annual compendium of press freedom conditions. Eventually, we moved online and created a public database that allows us—and others—to better understand the trends behind the numbers.

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From 1992 until the present day, CPJ has maintained a consistent methodology. We apply stringent journalistic standards, going beyond press reports and seeking out independent sources of information on each case. We compile basic biographical data—the person’s name, media organization, and type of work—and we make tough calls about whether the person killed was acting in a journalistic capacity. We also seek to determine the motive for the killing, and it is only when we are reasonably confident that an individual was killed while engaged in journalistic activity that we consider the case confirmed. It is this consistent and sustained approach that allows us to compile a comprehensive database of every journalist killed and to draw informed conclusions based on the data.

The numbers paint a shocking picture. In the decade from 2004 through 2013, 370 journalists have been murdered in direct retaliation for their work. The vast majority were local journalists reporting on corruption, crime, human rights, politics and war, among other issues of vital importance to their societies. In 90 percent of all these cases there has been total impunity—no arrests, no prosecutions, no convictions. In some cases, the assassin or an accomplice has been convicted; in only a handful is the mastermind of the crime brought to justice.

But our obsessive record-keeping is intended not only to unearth these troubling trends. We also hope to make sure there is a permanent record of each killing and that the information is updated if there is any progress toward justice. Keeping tabs on the murders also helps us understand the impact of these crimes within a particular society. Targeted attacks on the media have kept the world from understanding the full dimension of the violence taking place in Syria. Unchecked impunity has suppressed critical reporting on drug trafficking in Mexico, militant violence in Pakistan, and corruption in Russia.

Mikhail Beketov, center, died in April 2013 from injuries he sustained in a brutal attack in 2008. Beketov had covered corruption in the Russian government. No one has been brought to justice. (AFP/Alexey Sazonov)
Mikhail Beketov, center, died in April 2013 from injuries he sustained in a brutal attack in 2008. Beketov had covered corruption in the Russian government. No one has been brought to justice. (AFP/Alexey Sazonov)

The cost to the families, friends, and society as a whole is staggering. One crusading Russian journalist, Mikhail Beketov, died in April 2013 in a Moscow hospital from injuries sustained in an atrocious beating more than four years earlier, after he had reported on environmental destruction outside Moscow. I visited him in October 2010, when he was still struggling to recover from the damage inflicted on him by men with iron bars. The once burly fighter had been enfeebled: he had lost a leg, his hands had been mangled, and brain injuries prevented him from speaking. Through violence, a brave man who had used his voice and his pen to challenge the powerful had been rendered unable to communicate. No one has ever been arrested in connection with the assault.

Our research has found that such impunity emboldens the killers and silences the press. It isn’t just one story that ends with a journalist’s death; a climate of intimidation builds. A message is heard. Killers are emboldened, and violence repeats. Journalists have no choice but to listen. The murders foment zones of self-censorship, like that which has taken hold in part of Colombia and Mexico. “Impunity is a major, if not the main, cause of the high number of journalists killed every year,” said Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, in a 2012 report on journalist killings.

When the killing continues, we have seen whole communities of journalists flee into exile from countries like Iraq, Somalia, and Sri Lanka. Many fear to return until the perpetrators of attacks against journalists are jailed.

With awareness of the grim statistics and heart-wrenching stories have come more steady and insistent calls for action. In recent years, the role of journalists in promoting dialogue and holding power to account has been widely recognized. A free press helps advance the objectives of the U.N. and other intergovernmental organizations by promoting good governance, challenging corruption, combating crime, and helping to resolve conflict and build peace. The devastating impact of unpunished violence on the media undermines these critical functions.

In about 90 percent of journalist murders, no one is brought to justice. (IFEX/Lidija Sabados)
In about 90 percent of journalist murders, no one is brought to justice. (IFEX/Lidija Sabados)

As this report makes clear, the United Nations has responded, recognizing that the unchecked killing of journalists represents a threat to the flow of information and thus the global peace and security that the U.N. was founded to preserve. “Every journalist murdered or intimidated into silence is one less observer of our efforts to uphold rights and ensure human dignity,” said U.N. Deputy Director Jan Eliasson at the first Security Council debate on this issue in July 2013.

In 2011, UNESCO, with input from civil society including CPJ, began developing the Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.

This report is intended to advance the next step in that process. With the Action Plan and other measures, the U.N. and the international community have assumed responsibility for addressing the impunity crisis. What concrete steps can be taken to ensure success?

Elisabeth Witchel, the lead author of this report, is well poised to answer this question. Witchel founded CPJ’s Global Campaign against Impunity in 2007, and today is one of the world’s leading experts on the issue. In compiling this report, she carefully analyzed more than a decade’s worth of CPJ research and data and interviewed dozens of journalists, U.N. and government representatives, and press freedom advocates. Several members of CPJ staff contributed to sections of the report.

The difference between 1981 and today is stark. When the military junta took power in Argentina in the mid-1970s, it sought to eliminate witnesses to its atrocities and largely succeeded. Today, we have no excuse. Every single murder of a journalist is documented. We know the when, where, and how; we know the why; and we often know the who. Such knowledge compels us to act—not only in the interest of justice but also to ensure that in our globalized society violent forces can no longer determine what we know. If the ideals of the Information Age are to be realized, then we must take every step to eradicate the greatest single threat to global free expression: the unchecked and unsolved killings of those journalists who seek to inform their societies and the world. This report tells us how.

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