Ending impunity for crimes against journalists

Democracy depends on the ability of journalists to speak truth to power, investigate abuses, contribute to and strengthen public debate, and provide people with information on the world around them. Impunity for abuses which seek to silence journalists is a global threat to freedom of expression and open societies, and one that persists year on year with little improvement.

According to UNESCO, 82 journalists and media workers have been killed globally in 2018 to date. Most of these cases will see little justice: of the 930 killings recorded between 2012 and 2016, only 10% have been resolved and seen genuine justice.

Attacks on journalists take many forms. Journalists can face decades of imprisonment, mistreatment at the hands of police, threats and harassment from state or private actors, sexual violence, physical attacks and murder for exposing abuses, voicing dissent and reporting on protests and political processes. The persistent failure to take action against those responsible and investigate many of these crimes is a tacit acceptance by governments of crimes against freedom of expression.

What do we mean by impunity?

Impunity means ‘exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action’. It can apply to a number of human rights violations, leaving victims without justice and creating an environment that enables abuse.

Impunity for crimes against journalists means a failure by states to bring redress for abuses against journalists, including harassment, threats, attacks, arbitrary detention, and murder. This can be through:

  • Failing to undertake independent, speedy and effective investigation to threats, attacks or murders (this includes flawed fact-finding, failure to collect evidence, excessively slow and opaque investigation processes, failure to properly investigate motive and the use of scapegoats, and failing to identify masterminds behind attacks).
  • Failing to reform police practices which enable and encourage mistreatment of journalists.
  • Failing to reform or abolish laws which target journalists reporting on certain issues or expressing criticism.

Failure of governments to investigate attacks or bring redress is often motivated by self-interest. Where their own agents are responsible for violations or investigations would expose government failures there are clear benefits for state actors to silence and discredit journalists and enable aggressors. Elsewhere flawed judicial systems, a lack of political will, corrupt law enforcement, and fear of reprisal contribute to impunity.

International laws and standards require states to prevent, prohibit and address crimes against journalists. The obligation of states to protect press freedom and journalists’ safety has been affirmed in UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 which sets out in detail the actions states should take to tackle impunity and safeguard journalists.

However, impunity remains one of the most serious threats to free expression and journalists’ safety. Impunity creates a cycle which steadily erodes freedom of expression. Where journalists can be attacked and silenced with impunity, it emboldens other perpetrators to commit similar attacks, and intimidates journalists into silence. 

Abuses against journalists met with impunity

Attacks and abuses to silence dissent and public debate

 A free press is critical to public and political participation. Independent media brings the public information on the world around them and enables debate. However, in many countries journalists face violence and legal harassment intended to silence them: in covering protests, elections and reporting or voicing opinions on issues of public and political debate, journalists face increasing hostility across the world.

Scores of journalists covering campaigns around Brazil’s October 2018 election were harassed, threatened and physically attacked. Patrícia Campos Mello, a reporter for Folha de São Paulo, received an avalanche of online threats, two threatening phone calls, and her WhatsApp account was hacked, after she reported on an alleged campaign by business supporters of the far-right candidate and now elected President Jair Bolsonaro to distribute false news stories through WhatsApp to millions of Brazilians. The harassment of journalists around the election, which follows increased harassment, intimidation and murders of journalists in recent years, has seen limited condemnation from government officials.

In Kenya, at least 94 violations against journalists and media workers took place from May 2017 to April 2018. Political instability related to Kenya’s disputed elections in August 2017 saw mass protests met by excessive use of police force. This was accompanied by scores of violations against journalists and media workers trying to report on political issues and the protests. Violations towards journalists in Kenya showed a marked rise in severity and numbers during the prolonged election period where journalists were arbitrarily detained, physically attacked by police, and received various threats aimed to hamper their work. Police officers involved in many of these abuses have not been held to account.

In Bangladesh, more than 40 journalists and photojournalists came under attack while covering road safety protests in Dhaka in August 2018. Photographer and mediaworker, Shahidul Alam, was arrested on 5 August for an interview he gave to Aljazeera about the protests and for sharing a video of the protests on Facebook. Alam remains in arbitrary detention charged with violation of Bangladesh’s repressive ICT Act, and has had limited access to medical treatment after being beaten in police custody. The law is incompatible with international standards on freedom of expression and is frequently used by authorities against journalists, mediaworkers and activists to silence dissent.

Journalists continue to face prison sentences in Iran, where press freedom is under attack from government hardliners. Since protests broke out in December 2017, many journalists covering the protests have been arrested on vague charges of espionage. Journalists criticising the regime are often targeted: in August 2018 Amir Mohammad Hossein Miresmaili, a former journalist and satirist for the Jahan Sana’at newspaper in Iran was sentenced to a decade in prison after allegedly disparaging a Shia imam in a tweet aimed at criticising an ultra-conservative cleric in Iran.

In Mexico, impunity for crimes committed against journalists stands at 99.2%. 120 journalists have been murdered since 2000. Rubén Espinosa, a photojournalist who regularly reported on protest and participation, was tortured and murdered with activist Nadia Vera and three others in July 2015 in Mexico City. Espinosa had received repeated threats which had led him to flee to Mexico City, and the month before his murder was followed by two people who acted aggressively towards him. Statements by public officials following Espinosa’s murder sought to discredit his work as a journalist in particular his criticism of then Governor Javier Duarte’s government. While a suspect was arrested, the investigation has been severely flawed, and the local ombudsman’s office for human rights violations for Mexico City has called for action saying it lacked transparency, failed to investigate possible motivations related to Espinoza’s journalistic work, and involved a series of damaging leaks.

In Turkey journalists have been facing a relentless crackdown since 2016, when the attempted coup against President Erdogan’s government triggered a mass attacks on independent media. 174 journalists are currently in Turkish prisons, many of whom have suffered long periods of pre-trial detention. A lack of evidence and lack of due procedure plagues proceedings: the trial of journalists Mehmet and Ahmet Altan this year saw the two brothers accused of sending ‘subliminal messages’ via a television appearance before the attempted coup. During the trial their lawyers were expelled from hearings, they were denied the opportunity to see evidence used against them and were examined by different judges at each hearing – ultimately denying the defendants their rights to a fair trial.

Abuses to silence journalism exposing state corruption, human rights abuses and organised crime

Investigative journalists’ work to expose corrupt politicians, shady business deals, organised crime, or serious human rights violations, plays an essential role in human rights protection and ensuring accountability. However, this work carries huge risks as challenging powerful interests can lead to reprisals including arbitrary detention, legal harassment, threats and attacks. In too many cases, the punishment for exposing abuses is death.

Impunity in these cases is a chronic problem, as often it isn’t in states interests to bring those responsible to justice, because abuses are linked to state officials or tacit state acceptance of criminal activity and other abuses. Journalists who report on some of the most serious abuses of governments, and deeply entrenched corruption, have paid a high price, and so far seen no redress or justice.

Daphne Caruana Galizia was a prominent investigative journalist in Malta, reporting on corruption and wrongdoing by some of the country’s most powerful politicians and business people. As a result of her writing, which exposed politicians right up to the top of the Maltese government, she faced attacks, threats, and legal harassment, which at the time of her death included 43 defamation cases against her. In the week before her death this harassment escalated to death threats, and on 16 October 2017 she was killed by a car bomb near her home. So far no one has been charged with her murder, and the investigation into her death has been criticised by the EU and others, including through a report by MEPs that noted a worrying lack of independence, a failure to follow up with witness statements linking suspects with high level politicians, and a perceived intentional stalling in the process. The report also noted a failure to investigate numerous corruption allegations against senior figures. So far three men have been arrested suspected of making and planting the bomb, but the mastermind of the attack has not been identified. 

Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had been reporting on the killing of 10 Rohingya villagers in Rakhine State, Myanmar, when they were arrested in December 2017 and detained on charges under the Official Secrets Act. The Myanmar army’s most recent violent crackdown in Rakhine state, which began in August 2017, had caused hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the country’s Rohingya ethnic minority to flee the country, with widespread reports of crimes against humanity, including killings and sexual violence. The journalists had been reporting on an incident in one village when were arrested for possession of documents given to them earlier by police. On 3 September 2018 both journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison, and the Myanmar government continues to deny allegations of serious human rights violations from the UN and international and national civil society.

Akhmednabi Akhmednabiyev was a reporter for the Caucasion Knot, and the deputy editor of independent newspaper Novoye Delo, who had reported on a range of issues in the Dagestan region of Russia, including human rights violations by security forces. Over the years he had faced death threats, as well as surviving an assassination attempt only six months prior to his killing, which police had recorded as property damage and failed to investigate. On 9 July 2013, Akhmednabiyev was shot to death near his home. Since then, no one has been brought to justice for his killing. The initial investigation, although acknowledging the likely motive as to silence his journalism, was closed after one year with no progress. Although the investigation was reopened on 16 September 2014 as part of commitments from President Putin to tackle murders in the region, the case was closed again in 2015 with no perpetrator identified.

John Kituyi was the editor and publisher the of The Mirror Weekly, a regional newspaper in Kenya, who had been reporting before his death on witness interference in the ICC investigation against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto. Kituyi was bludgeoned to death near his home on 30 April 2015, with only his phone and office keys stolen, a week after publishing a story containing references to the allegations of witness interference. The ICC case he was investigating was later dropped with judges noting interference and political intimidation of witnesses. Despite the arrest and charge of a soldier, Nicholas Kathukya Kavili, for Kituyi’s death, impunity remains for the crime – Kavili was acquitted due to lack of evidence in 2018, and had been charged only with violent robbery under Article 295 of the Penal Code, which ignores the few items stolen and potential motives related to his reporting. Kituyi’s family had not been informed of the collapse of the case and investigation, and police have since stated that the case file is missing.

Gender-based attacks against women journalists

Women journalists face a distinct set of risks in carrying out their work. Entrenched discrimination means women journalists are at heightened risk of specific gender-based abuses, including sexual violence and harassment, online gender based abuse, and other forms of abuse. These gender-based abuses can occur on the basis of their reporting, or purely on the basis of being women operating in the public sphere.

The objective of these types of attacks is to silence, stigmatise and and intimidate women journalists. This has a detrimental impact not only on freedom of the press and the inclusion of women’s perspectives in public debate, but also on equality and women’s equal right to free expression.

Impunity for these abuses is also gendered – women struggle to have access to justice or have their complaints taken seriously, particularly where sexual violence has occurred, or where new forms of online abuse are not taken seriously or properly investigated.

Risks of sexual violence against women journalists are particularly high where they are in detention, or covering conflicts (due to the high levels of sexual violence in conflict) and protests. Risks of abuse are also high online, and can include doxing, stalking, threats of sexual violence, harassment and non-consensual disclosure of intimate images. Many of the threats faced by women journalists online are in fact closely linked to abuse offline.

Gender-based crimes against women journalists are a significant part of the overall issue of impunity. In Mexico, where crimes against journalists are committed with near total impunity, the gender based attacks are a major element. In 2017, there were 130 attacks against women journalists, 20 with a gendered element, and seven of these occurred in the digital space.  

Lydia Cacho, a Mexican journalist who has faced a number of abuses due to her journalism over the years, and whose reporting has exposed a child sexual exploitation ring and covered trafficking of women, was in December 2005 detained by security forces and others and subject to torture. She was subject to rape threats, and other sexual threats, verbal abuse and assault. Although one perpetrator was imprisoned, one remains on the run and others involved in the abuse have not been sought. In July 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee issued a decision calling on Mexico to address impunity in the case, and noting in particular the use of sexual violence against women detained in the country.

Tackling impunity: Prevent, protect, and prosecute

In order to tackle this global threat to freedom of expression and journalists safety, states must urgently take steps to tackle impunity at multiple levels. The UN has set out a range of actions that governments must take to end this pervasive human rights violation.

Prevent abuses against journalists

  • Create and maintain an enabling environment for journalists, through state policy, practice and rhetoric.
  • Ensure national laws do not interfere with journalists’ ability to carry out their work, and comply fully with international law on the right to freedom of expression.
  • Release all arbitrarily arrested or detained journalists and drop charges against them for carrying out their work.
  • End use of surveillance and other spying techniques on journalists or interception of their communications.
  • Allow journalists and others to use encryption and anonymity to protect themselves.
  • Protect journalists’ confidential sources.
  • Train the judiciary, law enforcement and military, as well as journalists and civil society, on international standards on the safety of journalists and freedom of expression, as well as equality and tackling gender-based abuses.

Protect journalists from abuses

  • Publicly and unequivocally condemn all violence and attacks against journalists, including threats of such attacks.
  • Establish early warning and rapid response mechanisms, which enable journalists to access protection and support.
  • Monitor and report on attacks against journalists.
  • Protect journalists covering protests and elections, including by preventing violent attacks and sexual violence.
  • Protect media outlets against attack and forced closure.
  • Protect journalists in armed conflicts as civilians.
  • Encourage and support media organisations own efforts in advancing safety.

Prosecute abuses against journalists

  • Adopt all-encompassing strategies to combat impunity
  • Ensure impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations.
  • Prosecute those who commit crimes against journalists, including those who command, conspire to commit, aid and abet, or cover up such crimes.
  • Ensure victims of crimes against journalists and their families have access to appropriate remedies.
  • Make sure efforts to address impunity are backed by political will and adequate resources.

Read the press release