The Road to Justice

2. Measuring Progress Against Stubborn Reality

In November 2013, the United Nations General Assembly put the issue of impunity squarely on the global agenda.

The Resolution on Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, adopted by consensus, describes the absence of justice for victims as “one of the main challenges to strengthening the protection of journalists.” It calls on states to “ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, speedy, and effective investigations into all alleged violence against journalists and media workers falling within their jurisdiction.” Governments are further charged to “bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice and to ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies.” The resolution proclaims November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.

For CPJ and other groups that have campaigned against impunity, the resolution represented a new level of international recognition. “The vote demonstrated that these governments acknowledge a problem exists, and that the safety of journalists to do their work in the public interest needs to be protected,” wrote Annie Game, executive director of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of freedom of expression groups. The organization has observed an annual International Day to End Impunity since 2011.

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In June 2012, at the 20th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, impunity in targeted attacks against journalists was highlighted as a major blight to human rights by Christof Heyns, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, and by the rapporteur for promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank LaRue. Later that year, member states at the Human Rights Council passed their own resolution on journalist safety, calling for states to redress impunity.

In 2012, the U.N. also adopted the UNESCO-led Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, a bid to induce stakeholders—states, U.N. agencies, regional bodies, civil society, and media groups—to promote the protection of journalists and justice for journalist killings. The U.N. Security Council held two debates on the issue in 2013. Other international bodies are taking positions on this issue as well. In April of this year, the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted a declaration on journalist safety, suggesting that “eradicating impunity is a crucial obligation upon [s]tates.”

This international endorsement is an important step in addressing an issue that CPJ previously has seen dismissed by governments as an overstated or inconsequential problem. The member states behind these organizations have, by their adoption of these documents, made strong public commitments to fully investigate and to respond when a journalist is assaulted, threatened, or killed.

Somali journalist Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, seen here speaking to internally displaced children, was killed by a car bomb in 2014. (Abdukhader Ahmed)
Somali journalist Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, seen here speaking to internally displaced children, was killed by a car bomb in 2014. (Abdukhader Ahmed)

Outside of political corridors, though, progress is spotty at best. The reality on the ground is that impunity rates have risen steadily over the past decade in most countries that CPJ has identified as places where journalists are repeatedly murdered and the killers go free. In nine of these countries—Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, India, Iraq, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Somalia—there were new killings in 2013, a chilling reminder that where there is impunity, journalists will remain targets year after year. Amid these discouraging numbers, there is one concrete sign of encouragement: Convictions in journalist murders have been edging higher. The number of convictions in 2013 was nearly twice the previous high mark going back to 2004. Though the road to justice would demand many more convictions, the new trend may be an indication that domestic and international pressure is starting to produce change.

When CPJ developed its campaign against impunity in 2007, an essential concern was how to measure and define progress. Accordingly, CPJ developed the Global Impunity Index, which calculates murders for which no convictions of any suspects have taken place, as a percent of a country’s population. With the aim of monitoring countries with patterns of violence and impunity, each annual index identifies murders that have taken place in the previous 10 years and includes only countries with five or more unsolved cases during that period.

The first Global Impunity Index was launched in 2008; CPJ published its seventh index in 2014. The changes over time are not dramatic, but they are telling. Sixteen countries have earned places on the index over this period. Ten of them have maintained a place every year, meaning they have sustained a record of at least five unsolved murders for the previous 10 years, an indication that impunity is well entrenched in those countries. The data from those 10 countries show that impunity has risen on average 56 percent in those countries between 2008 and 2014.

The Greatest Offenders:

Impunity ratings of the 10 countries that have appeared on CPJ’s Impunity Index each year from its inception in 2008.
Impunity ratings of the 10 countries that have appeared on CPJ’s Impunity Index each year from its inception in 2008.

The most dramatic deterioration took place in Somalia, which saw its impunity rating more than quadruple since 2008. Yusuf Ahmed Abukar was the latest victim, and the 27th journalist to be murdered in Somalia over the past decade with full impunity, when his killers remotely detonated a bomb in his car. Pakistan’s rating has more than doubled over this period. Despite one major conviction, in the case of Wali Khan Babar earlier in 2014, journalists there face an array of threats, not only from militants and warlords but also from military, security, and government officials, according to CPJ research.

Mexico nearly doubled its impunity rating in the past seven years as authorities failed to check unrelenting violence against the press there. The Philippines, where killings spiked after the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre, followed with the next biggest increase: its 2014 rating has risen more than 80 percent since 2008. Brazil, which joined the index in 2009, has seen its impunity rating rise more than 70 percent since then. India, Iraq, and Sri Lanka all went up slightly. In Russia, sparse prosecutions were offset by new killings; the country has the same rating today that it had seven years ago.

Colombia registered the most positive change. Its 2014 rating fell to less than a third of what it was in 2008, an improvement that has less to do with justice—only two convictions have taken place there in the past 10 years—than with an overall decline in fatal journalist attacks. Three countries, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, and Nepal, came off the index altogether, also due mainly to an ebbing of anti-press violence linked to broader political changes.

Convictions in Journalist Murders, 2004-2013:

NOTE: Convictions include some murders that occurred before 2004.
NOTE: Convictions include some murders that occurred before 2004.

The recent upswing in convictions must be seen in a sobering context. From 2004 to 2013, there were convictions in only 41 cases where CPJ determined a journalist’s murder was work-related; a total of 370 slayings occurred in the same period. But the trend line is encouraging, with 26 of those convictions coming in the most recent five years, against just 15 convictions in the earlier five-year period. Last year alone, there was a relative boom, with eight convictions globally, including in countries with long-standing records of high impunity such as Russia, the Philippines and Brazil. In 2004, there was just one.

Eight acts of justice during a year in which 31 journalists were murdered for doing their jobs is not a number to celebrate, but it is a strong departure from the abysmal record of previous years.

With its recent improvement on CPJ’s Impunity Index, Colombia embodies hope for the future, but also the reality of the long road that must be traveled to reach full justice.

Colombia has more than halved its impunity rating in the last seven years, and it has moved from fifth to eighth in the global ranking of countries with the worst records of prosecuting journalist murders.

Colombia’s protection program for journalists, which provides security details or helps relocate threatened journalists, is often credited with improving the country’s record of anti-press violence, once among the highest in the world.

A reporter tries to interview a protester being taken away by police during clashes near Bogotá in 2013. Violence against journalists in Colombia has generally waned, and with it, journalist deaths. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)
A reporter tries to interview a protester being taken away by police during clashes near Bogotá in 2013. Violence against journalists in Colombia has generally waned, and with it, journalist deaths. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)

But to a large extent, the country’s improvement appears to be a byproduct of a waning of the country’s 50-year-old armed conflict. The fighting has pitted two Marxist rebel groups against the government; until recently, the mix also included right-wing paramilitaries that often collaborated with the army. All four of these armed actors have gunned down journalists.

But the violence has diminished, and with it, journalist deaths. Illegal armed groups, corrupt politicians, and others continue to threaten reporters, but these days intimidation more often leads to self-censorship rather than murder, according to Pedro Vaca, executive director of the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP. He described this incremental improvement as going from “really bad” to “bad.”

The government is reorganizing the attorney general’s office to provide a special team to examine crimes against journalists. So far, however, there have been no improvements in speed or efficiency in solving these cases, Vaca said.

Although Colombia’s traditional legal system remains frustratingly slow, some measure of clarity, if not closure, may be achieved through so-called transitional justice. The term refers to judicial as well as alternative measures to redress widespread human rights abuses in societies transitioning from war to peace.

For example, under a 2005 law that promised light sentences in exchange for disarming and telling the truth, several paramilitary leaders explained their roles in the murders of two journalists in the early 2000s in the northern state of Arauca. Although there have still been no convictions in those cases, surviving family members at least know more about what happened.

Meanwhile, under the Victims and Land Restitution Law of 2011, the government is providing reparations to thousands of victims of human rights violations—journalists among them—who were entitled to state protection from such violence

In addition, the government has made a number of symbolic gestures to start repairing the profound damage wrought by the armed conflict on Colombian journalism. In February, the government’s Victims Unit held a special ceremony in Bogotá in honor of murdered Colombian journalists that was attended by President Juan Manuel Santos. “It is not the same thing as a court putting killers in prison,” Vaca said. “But it does have a healing effect.”

Yet in the pursuit of full justice for murdered journalists, Colombia has made only halting steps. A vivid example is the case of Luis Eduardo Gómez.

A freelance journalist, Gómez was also a government witness in an investigation into links between Colombian politicians and paramilitary groups, a relationship he often chronicled. On June 30, 2011, an unidentified assailant shot Gómez, 70, in his hometown of Arboletes in northern Colombia, and fled on a motorcycle.

For a while, the Colombian government appeared to be on top of the case. It agreed to pay reparations to Gómez’s widow. Last year, Colombia’s national police chief, Rodolfo Palomino, announced the capture of Hermes Rebolledo, a former paramilitary leader whom Palomino linked to the killing of Gómez.

Later, however, the attorney general’s office said that, while Rebolledo was under investigation for drug trafficking and other crimes, he had not been linked to the murder of the journalist. Three years after Gómez was killed, the case remains unsolved. The case is on CPJ’s list of unconfirmed journalist killings, which means that CPJ has not yet determined whether journalism was the motive of the crime.

Justice nearly always remains elusive or incomplete when journalists are murdered in Colombia. Since 1977, FLIP has documented 142 killings of journalists that were job-related. Of this total, nearly half have been closed because they exceed a 20-year statute of limitations. The attorney general’s office could provide no information on 30 cases because the files had apparently been lost or misplaced. All told, there have been just 19 convictions.

CPJ, which began tracking the killings of journalists in 1992 and uses different methodology, has documented 45 journalists killed directly for their work in Colombia, and an additional 33 killings in which the motive is not clear. In murder cases where CPJ has confirmed journalism is the motive, impunity reigns in 88 percent, with most of the rest having achieved only partial justice.

Even when the killers are caught and convicted, the masterminds who target reporters nearly always remain free, CPJ research shows. Investigations often fall apart due to problems such as overburdened prosecutors, a lack of information sharing, mishandling of evidence, and malfeasance by judicial officials.

Alejandro Ramelli, a prosecutor for the attorney general’s office in Bogotá and an expert on crimes against reporters, blamed two factors for widespread impunity. In a 2013 interview with CPJ, he pointed to structural problems within the judicial system, and a single-minded focus by prosecutors on the last link in the chain—those directly responsible for killing journalists—rather than the criminal organizations and corrupt politicians who are often behind the murders.

The killing goes on. In 2013, one journalist and one media support worker were murdered in Colombia in direct retaliation for their work. Another journalist at the country’s leading newsmagazine narrowly survived an assassination attempt, while reporters throughout the country were repeatedly threatened and, in some cases, forced to flee their homes and the country. Speaking at UNESCO on World Press Freedom Day in 2013, journalist Claudia Julieta Duqué, herself a victim of a long campaign of harassment and intimidation that forced her into temporary exile on several occasions, told an audience, “Protection is good, but the people behind impunity must face repercussions.”

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