Getting Away With Murder

CPJ’s 2015 Global Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free

Published October 8, 2015

Elisabeth Witchel/CPJ Impunity Campaign Consultant

The ambush of a convoy in South Sudan and the hacking deaths of bloggers in Bangladesh this year propelled the two nations onto CPJ’s Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go unpunished. Colombia exited the index as fatal violence against journalists receded further into that country’s past.

For the first time since CPJ began compiling the index in 2008, Iraq did not claim the title of worst offender, as Somalia edged into that spot. The shift reflects a steady death toll in Somalia, where one or more journalists have been murdered every year over the past decade, and the government has proved unable or unwilling to investigate the attacks.

Iraq’s move away from the top spot is based on a number of factors, few of them encouraging; only one conviction has been achieved in Iraq. The Impunity Index examines unsolved murders over the previous decade in which journalism is the confirmed motive. The first couple of years of the Iraq War are no longer covered by the most recent 10-year period, and targeted killings dropped in the second half of the decade compared with the watermark years of 2006 and 2007. More recently, members of the militant group Islamic State have abducted and killed at least two journalists. The group’s forceful control of information has to date made it impossible for CPJ to accurately document additional cases and determine the motive.

Islamic State’s brutality against journalists is also behind Syria’s rise in the index from number five to number three. Since August 2014, militants beheaded three international correspondents, circulating videos of the executions on social media. As in Iraq, the group is believed to be responsible for additional kidnappings and killings of journalists in Syria that CPJ has not been able to confirm. Syria is the world’s most dangerous place for journalists, with record numbers of abductions and attacks committed not only by Islamic State but other militant factions as well as forces loyal to the Assad regime.

The Philippines, in fourth place, is the only country among the top five that is not in a state of large-scale armed conflict.

The Impunity Index-which is being released in advance of the second International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, November 2, a day adopted by the United Nations General Assembly-calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country’s population. For this edition, CPJ examined journalist murders in every nation in the world that took place between September 1, 2005, and August 31, 2015. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on the index. This year, 14 countries met the index criteria, compared with 13 in the previous edition. Cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained; cases in which suspects are killed during apprehension or some, but not all, perpetrators are held to justice, are classified as partial impunity and not counted toward the five-case threshold. The total number of cases analyzed for this Index is 270.

Colombia, the only country to drop off the index this year, has fewer than five unsolved cases for the time period under examination. Convictions in two journalist murders have taken place there since 2009; both notably brought full justice with the sentencing of the masterminds. But Colombia’s improvement is also largely attributed to a decrease nationwide in political violence and to a government protection program for journalists. Journalists have nonetheless been threatened on numerous occasions, according to CPJ research. On September 10, an unidentified gunman killed Colombian journalist Flor Alba Núñez Vargas in front of her radio station. Her colleague said Núñez had received threats in connection with her reporting.

Convictions also took place in the last year in three index countries-Russia, Iraq, and Brazil-but in only one case, the 2009 homicide of Russian reporter Anastasiya Baburova, was the person who commissioned the crime jailed.

The addition of South Sudan, where five journalists traveling in a political convoy were ambushed and killed this year, is emblematic of the challenges to achieving justice in areas wracked by war or where potent illegal armed groups actively menace journalists, like Pakistan, 9th on the index, and Nigeria, 13th.

At the same time, more than half the countries on the index are democracies with functioning law enforcement and judicial institutions, including the Philippines, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and India, which together have let the killers of at least 96 journalists go unpunished over the past decade. The numbers show that the political will needed to prosecute those who silence journalists, many of whom investigate corruption or report critically on local leadership, is absent.

In May this year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2222 which calls for states to take greater steps to protect journalists in situations of armed conflict and ensure accountability for crimes against them. The resolution is the latest in a series of measures the UN has adopted to address the problem. In its 2014 special report, “Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity,” CPJ concluded that despite this growing international attention, there has been little progress in terms of the number of convictions.

Among the other findings in the data used to compile CPJ’s Impunity Index:

  • The 14 countries on the index combined account for 83 percent of the unsolved murders that took place worldwide during the 10-year period ending August 31, 2015.
  • Nine of the 14 countries on the Impunity Index have been listed each year since CPJ began the annual analysis in 2008, demonstrating the tenacity of the cycle of violence and impunity.
  • Around 96 percent of victims are local reporters. The majority covered politics and corruption in their home countries.
  • Threats often precede killings. In at least four out of every 10 journalist murders, the victims reported receiving threats before they were killed. Threats are rarely investigated by authorities.
  • Almost a third of murdered journalists were taken captive before their death, the majority of whom were tortured-a clear attempt to send the media a message of intimidation.
  • Political groups, including armed factions, are the suspected perpetrators in 46 percent of murder cases, up six percentage points over the 2014 index. Government and military officials are considered the leading suspects in nearly 25 percent of the cases.
  • In only two percent of cases are the masterminds ever apprehended and prosecuted.
  • Half the countries on the Impunity Index-Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria-failed to provide any updated information on investigations into journalist killings for the most recent (2014) biannual impunity report of the Director General of UNESCO, the U.N. agency mandated to promote freedom of expression, demonstrating a lack of international accountability.

For a detailed explanation of CPJ’s methodology, click here.

South Sudan newspaper Juba Monitor reports on the murder of Peter Julius Moi, who was shot dead in August. A series of journalist killings have put the newly independent country on the Impunity Index.  (AFP/Samir Bol)
South Sudan newspaper Juba Monitor reports on the murder of Peter Julius Moi, who was shot dead in August. A series of journalist killings have put the newly independent country on the Impunity Index. (AFP/Samir Bol)

The Index

Here are the 14 countries where at least five journalists have been murdered without a single perpetrator being convicted. The index covers murders that took place between September 1, 2005, and August 31, 2015.


CPJ’s Impunity Index calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population. For this index, CPJ examined journalist murders that occurred between September 1, 2005, and August 31, 2015, and that remain unsolved. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on this index.

CPJ defines murder as a deliberate attack against a specific journalist in relation to the victim’s work. Murders make up nearly 70 percent of work-related deaths among journalists, according to CPJ research. This index does not include cases of journalists killed in combat or while carrying out dangerous assignments such as coverage of street protests.

Cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained. Cases in which some but not all suspects have been convicted are classified as partial impunity in CPJ’s comprehensive database of journalists killed in the line of duty. Cases in which the suspected perpetrators were killed during apprehension are also categorized as partial impunity. The index only analyzes murders that have been carried out with complete impunity; it does not include those where partial justice has been achieved. Population data from the World Bank’s 2014 World Development Indicators were used in calculating each country’s rating.

The wreckage of a car belonging to Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, who was killed in a bomb blast in June 2014. At least 30 journalists have been murdered without consequence in Somalia since 2008. (AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)
The wreckage of a car belonging to Yusuf Ahmed Abukar, who was killed in a bomb blast in June 2014. At least 30 journalists have been murdered without consequence in Somalia since 2008. (AP/Farah Abdi Warsameh)

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Not one year has passed over the last decade without a journalist being murdered in civil war-wracked Somalia, which first appeared on the index in 2008. At least 30 journalists have been murdered without any consequence for the perpetrators in this index period, the majority targeted by Al-Shabaab militants who for years have threatened and assaulted journalists in relation to their coverage of the group’s activities. While the government has pinned its impunity problem on the political instability and shortage of resources inflicted by 20 years of civil war, journalists say authorities fail to conduct even minimal investigations when journalists are killed. In April, unidentified armed men broke into the home of Daud Ali Omar at night and killed him and his wife while they were sleeping. Daud was a producer for a privately owned, pro-government radio station, and local journalists and police said they suspected Al-Shabaab was responsible.

Impunity Index Rating: 2.857 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 2nd with a rating of 2.549

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For the first time since CPJ compiled the Impunity Index, Iraq is not ranked as the worldwide worst offender. Its numbers of unsolved murders remain staggering-84 journalists have been slain with complete impunity over the last decade, far more than any other country-but lethal anti-press violence, while still frequent, has fallen from its height in 2006 and 2007 when a combined total of 55 journalists were murdered. Dozens of attacks ranging from abductions to murder are believed to have taken place in territories controlled by Islamic State militants, but the group’s tight control of information has prevented CPJ from confirming most of these attacks and including those victims on this list, a fact that belies Iraq’s ostensible improvement. Only one case in Iraq has met with any level of justice, and it took place in the autonomous Kurdistan region. In October 2014, a criminal court sentenced a suspect to death for the 2013 killing of Kawa Garmyane, editor-in-chief of a monthly magazine in Kurdistan. While the conviction, the first in Iraq, is a major leap forward in the fight against impunity, the case was set back in January this year when the same court acquitted the military commander charged with ordering the assassination.

Impunity Index Rating: 2.414 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 1st with a rating of 3.067

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War-torn Syria has jumped two spots to number three from number five. Eleven journalists have been deliberately killed since 2012, all with complete impunity. Increasingly, violence against the press is used in Syria not only as a means to control coverage but as a propaganda tactic. Islamist State militants beheaded three foreign correspondents beginning in August 2014, videotaping the gruesome acts for social media. But local journalists covering the devastating conflict within their own communities are frequently targeted not only by militant groups, but security forces and Syrian rebels. Syria is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. Since the conflict began in 2011, at least 85 journalists have been killed by crossfire, on dangerous assignments, or murdered.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.496 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 5th with a rating of 0.313

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Though it has dropped to fourth from third on the Impunity Index, the Philippines remains the only country within the top five impunity offenders not engulfed by conflict and acute political instability. At least 44 murders have taken place since September 2005 with complete impunity; seven have occurred under the current administration of President Benigno Aquino III. Justice for the 32 media victims and 26 others slaughtered in the 2009 massacre in Maguindanao appears more elusive than ever. No one has yet been convicted of the crime and, after six years of protracted legal proceedings, the suspected mastermind has now died of natural causes. The 2013 conviction of the gunman who assassinated investigative journalist Gerardo Ortega was a welcome advance, but the two former politicians accused of commissioning the crime have not yet stood trial.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.444 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 3rd with a rating of 0.527

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South Sudan joins the Impunity Index just four years after becoming an independent nation. Five journalists were killed on January 25, 2015, when unidentified gunmen ambushed an official convoy in South Sudan’s Western Bahr al Ghazal state. A total of 11 people died in the attack. According to witnesses, the victims were shot and attacked with machetes before being set on fire. CPJ is investigating the murder of a sixth journalist, reporter Peter Julius Moi, who was shot in the back while walking home from work August 19, 2015. No attackers in either incident have been apprehended. The killings bring a new level of intimidation to South Sudan’s beleaguered media. Since civil war broke out in 2013, security agents have harassed the press and raided media outlets to limit coverage of rebel activities, according to CPJ research. South Sudan is now the second worst impunity offender in Africa after Somalia.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.420 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: South Sudan has not appeared on any previous index

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Sri Lanka moved to sixth place from fourth on this year’s Index, its improvement due not to prosecutions-the island nation still maintains a perfect record of impunity in journalist slayings-but to the fact that no journalists have been murdered for their work since the end of civil war in 2009. So far, President Maithripala Sirisena, inaugurated in January this year, has demonstrated greater political will for justice than his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whose leadership nine media murders, including the five from this index period, took place. In May, Sirisena pledged to reopen the investigations into journalists killed or disappeared during the last 30 years, naming the assassination of prominent editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknelygoda as priority cases. Since then, at least seven army officers have been arrested in connection with Eknelygoda’s case. Wickramatunga’s and all other killings remain unsolved.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.242 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 4th with a rating of 0.443

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No perpetrators have been held responsible in any of the five targeted killings that took place in Afghanistan in the decade covered by this year’s index. Cases include Zakia Zaki, shot seven times in 2007 by gunmen who stormed her home. Zaki had received warnings she should shut down the independent radio station she directed, which covered human rights and local politics. Foreign journalists have also been frequent targets in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, following elections last year that brought in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Afghanistan’s first vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, marked the first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists by meeting with journalists and promising support for the media, according to news reports. He also included a warning, however, for journalists who desecrate religion: “I will strangle such a person myself.”

Impunity Index Rating: 0.158 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 6th with a rating of 0.168

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Mexico’s impunity rating has more than doubled since it first appeared on the index in 2008. Nineteen journalists covering crime and corruption were murdered with complete impunity over the last decade. In 2013, Mexico introduced legislation to enable federal authorities in Mexico to prosecute crimes against journalists, but the measure has failed to yield prosecutions, disappointing journalists and freedom of expression advocates. Since its passage, six more journalists have been murdered with impunity. In a chilling development this July, Mexican photographer Rubén Espinosa was tortured and murdered in Mexico City, previously considered a safe haven for journalists facing threats in Veracruz and other cartel-dominated states. Following the murder, more than 700 writers signed a letter to President Enrique Peña Nieto calling for the full investigation into crimes against journalists. “Organized crime, corrupt government officials, and a justice system incapable of prosecuting criminals all contribute to reporters’ extreme vulnerability,” read the letter, which CPJ supported.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.152 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 7th with a rating of 0.132

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Hopes that last year’s conviction of six suspects for the assassination of television reporter Wali Khan Babar would herald a new dawn for journalists have dwindled in the face of fresh violence and the leadership’s failure to implement a series of commitments to CPJ to address impunity. Three journalists have been slain since the last index period, bringing Pakistan’s total to 22 for the most recent decade. They include Shan Dahar who was gunned down while investigating illegal sales of aid medicine at a local hospital. With the exception of Babar’s case, impunity remains the norm in these murders and in a slew of recent, non-fatal attacks, such as the shooting that gravely injured popular news anchor Hamid Mir. Threats to journalists stream from military and intelligence agencies, political parties, criminal groups and militants, and corrupt local leaders. Pakistan is a focus country for the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and Issue of Impunity, an initiative that has improved dialogue and coordinationamong civil society, media, and the government but not yet led to any significant reduction in impunity.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.119 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 9th with a rating of 0.123

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The conviction in July of the mastermind behind the double murder of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and Novaya Gazeta reporter Anastasiya Baburova brought a glimmer of relief to a bleak record of impunity but, with 11 unsolved cases for this index period, Russia remains the worst country in Europe and Central Asia region at prosecuting journalists’ killers. Baburova’s case is unique; in nearly 90 percent of murders of journalists in Russia, no one is convicted. This fact stands in stark contrast to a statement by Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin in 2014 that 90 percent of all homicides in Russia are solved. The few prosecutions that have advanced, such as the high-profile case of Anna Politkovskaya, resulted so far in only the sentencing of those who carried out the crime-not those who ordered it. Other investigations have tapered off. Despite a personal promise by President Vladimir Putin to bring the attackers to justice, not a single person has been arrested for the assault on environmental journalist Mikhail Beketov, who succumbed in 2013 to injuries he sustained in 2008 when thugs bludgeoned him into a coma. CPJ has called for a re-investigation into the ultimately fatal beating.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.076 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 10th with a rating of 0.098

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Despite a growing record of convictions, deadly violence against journalists continues to outpace justice in Brazil. With 11 unsolved cases, the country maintains the same worldwide impunity ranking as last year. In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in May 2014, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff pledged to pursue “zero impunity” and support legislative efforts to federalize crimes against free expression. Since then, suspects in the 2013 killings of crime reporters Rodrigo Neto and Walgney Assis de Carvalho have been convicted and sentenced. As with the majority of cases, however, accountability has extended as far as the gunmen but not the mastermind. Prosecuting those who order killings of journalists remains a key challenge to breaking Brazil’s cycle of violence, particularly when taking into consideration the fact that local government officials are the leading suspects in the majority of cases.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.053 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 11th with a rating of 0.045

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A wave of violence against bloggers has landed Bangladesh back onto the index for the first time since 2011. At least four Bangladeshi bloggers have been hacked to death by apparent Islamic extremists this year alone, and a total of five of Bangladesh’s seven victims of unsolved murders over the last decade are bloggers who criticized religious extremism. Brazen attacks against bloggers like American-Bangladeshi Avijit Roy, who was pulled from a rickshaw by machete-wielding assailants outside a book fair in Dhaka, have been followed by a handful of arrests, but in only one case since 2005, Gautam Das, have the perpetrators been tried and convicted. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the nominally secular ruling Awami League party have done little to speak out for justice in these crimes, allowing political interests to trump rule of law. One colleague told CPJ, “Authorities seem more concerned with what bloggers are writing than going after their killers.” In the wake of this unchecked terror, several bloggers have fled into exile.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.044 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Bangladesh was not on the 2014 index

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With five unsolved murders, Nigeria holds a place on CPJ’s Impunity Index for the third year in a row. At least two journalists have been killed by individuals affiliated with Boko Haram, according to CPJ research, while others, like prominent news editor Bayo Ohu, were killed in connection with their reporting on local politics. Ohu was shot at his front door in 2009; in 2012, three suspects were acquitted of the crime after police failed to present any evidence. Nigeria has failed to respond to requests by the director-general of UNESCO, the U.N. agency mandated to promote press freedom, for the judicial status of this and several other journalist killings. In June 2015, CPJ wrote to then-President-elect Muhammadu Buhari asking him to depart from his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan, by making the prosecution of killers of journalists a priority.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.028 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 12th with a rating of 0.030

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Of the 11 journalist murders CPJ has confirmed as work-related in the last 10 years in India, all have been carried out with complete impunity, securing India’s spot on the Impunity Index for the eighth year in a row. Nearly all the victims reported on corruption or politics, like freelance journalist Jagendra Singh, who died from burn wounds in June. Singh reported on politics and illegal mining activities in Uttar Pradesh. In a statement before his death, he alleged that police set him on fire at the behest of a local government minister. India’s unrelenting impunity is fostering an increasingly dangerous climate for journalists. Just days after Singh’s murder, another journalist was beaten and dragged behind a motorcycle, and a reporter in West Bengal went missing, among other assaults. The Press Council of India, a statutory body, has called for a two-minute news blackout on November 2 to protest impunity in recent attacks against journalists.

Impunity Index Rating: 0.008 unsolved journalist murders per million inhabitants

Last year: Ranked 13th with a rating of 0.006

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Rank Nation Unsolved Cases Population (in millions)* Rating
1 Somalia 30 10.5 2.857
2 Iraq 84 34.8 2.414
3 Syria 11 22.2 0.496
4 Philippines 44 99.1 0.444
5 South Sudan 5 11.9 0.420
6 Sri Lanka 5 20.6 0.242
7 Afghanistan 5 31.6 0.158
8 Mexico 19 125.4 0.152
9 Pakistan 22 185.0 0.119
10 Russia 11 143.8 0.076
11 Brazil 11 206.1 0.053
12 Bangladesh 7 159.1 0.044
13 Nigeria 5 177.5 0.028
14 India 11 1295.0 0.008

CPJ’s Impunity Index is compiled as part of the organization’s Global Campaign Against Impunity, which is made possible thanks to generous support from the Leon Levy Foundation.