29.04.2003 -

Unpunished Crimes against Journalists: A strategy for Reducing Impunity

Haiti's most popular radio commentator, Jean Leopold Dominique, was shot dead on April 3, 2000, as he arrived to work at his radio station. His killers remain free. Similarly, the murderers of Georgiy Gongadze, the editor in chief of the Ukrainian news website, pravda.com.ua, who was found decapitated on November 2, 2000, are still at large. Impunity is enjoyed by the slayers of many journalists around the world.

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day celebrated around the world on May 3, UNESCO is organizing an international conference of media professionals and organizations whose main theme will be the impunity for crimes against journalists. The conference - taking place in Kingston, Jamaica - will seek to define strategies to reduce this problem. On May 2, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura will award this year's UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to Israeli journalist Amira Hass.

 

In his message for World Press Freedom Day, Mr Matsuura argues that "whenever one journalist is exposed to violence, intimidation or arbitrary detention because of his or her commitment to conveying the truth, all citizens are deprived of the right to express themselves and act according to their conscience." *

 

In 2002 alone, 20 journalists were killed, "targeted in direct reprisal for their work", according to the nongovernmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)1 in what the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)2 calls the "most archaic and brutal" form of repression against press freedom. "At year's end, most of the killers of these 20 cases had not been brought to justice - a record of impunity that threatens press freedom worldwide," according to the introduction to the CPJ's report on attacks on the media.

 

The CPJ notes that 366 journalists have been killed while carrying out their work over the past decade. According to its statistics, 60 journalists (16 percent) died in cross fire, while 277 (76 percent) were murdered. The remaining journalists were killed in conflict situations that cannot be described as combat - while covering street demonstrations, for example.

 

Since 1993, CPJ has recorded only 21 cases in which those who ordered a journalist's murder have been arrested and prosecuted. This means that impunity prevailed in 94 percent of cases.

 

The problem of impunity also concerns the killing of war reporters. In many cases they were shot although they were wearing vests identifying them as members of the press. These killings have given rise to little legal action against their perpetrators.

 

Nine journalists were killed in Afghanistan in 2002, and at least nine died in the war in Iraq this year, leading the Director-General of UNESCO to issue repeated calls on the belligerents to respect international agreements and treat journalists as civilians. "On no account must journalists be targeted," he said, recalling Article 79 of the Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions which states that, "Journalists engaged in dangerous professional missions in areas of armed conflict shall be considered as civilians."

 

"In times of war and violent conflict, the dangers facing journalists are greater than usual but these are precisely the circumstances when independent, accurate and professional reporting is at a premium," Mr Matsuura states in his message. Professional organizations are calling for full investigations of the killing of journalists in conflict areas.

 

The problem of impunity on crimes against reporters gave rise to a UNESCO resolution, adopted by the Organization's Member States on November 12, 1997. It calls on States to remove any statute of limitations on crimes against persons when such crimes are "perpetrated to prevent the exercise of freedom of information and expression or when their purpose is the obstruction of justice" and urges governments to "refine legislation to make it possible to prosecute and sentence those who instigate the assassination of persons exercising the right to freedom of expression." It also requests legal provisions to ensure that "persons responsible for offences against journalists exercising their professional duties and the media [to] be judged before civil and/or ordinary courts."

 

The Director-General echoes these principles in his message: "The debt we collectively incur when journalists suffer on our behalf must be repaid in practical ways. At the very least, we must declare war on impunity. I therefore appeal to all governments, at all levels, to fulfil their responsibility to ensure that crimes against journalists do not go unpunished. It is essential that all violations are investigated thoroughly, that all perpetrators are prosecuted, and that all judicial systems and processes are capable of punishing those found guilty. These requirements are vital for correcting human rights abuses. Putting an end to impunity fulfils our need for justice; in addition, it will do much to prevent abuses occurring in the first place."

 

Since the adoption of UNESCO's resolution some progress has been recorded. The Damocles Network3 of lawyers, judges, journalists, human rights activists and experts in international criminal law, set up with the NGO Reporters Without Borders notes some "progress in dealing with a legacy of violence against journalists in Chile, Afghanistan and Timor Leste."

 

Damocles welcomes signs of progress in some countries but, despite these improvements, has maintained a "Black List" of countries where "murderers, abductors and torturers of journalists are enjoying impunity."

 

World Press Freedom Day will be celebrated by UNESCO in Kingston, Jamaica, with an international conference - "Freedom of Expression: Early New Millennium Challenges". It will feature a session on "Unpunished Crimes against Journalists: A Strategy for Reducing Impunity" (May 2 and 3) bringing together media professionals and representatives of professional organizations who will present case studies from Brazil, Iran, Nepal, Rwanda and the Carribbean.

 

"Safety of Journalists" will also be discussed during the conference, which will feature case studies from Afghanistan, the Basque Country (Spain), the Caribbean, Israel, Colombia and Zimbabwe.

 

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day in Jamaica, Israeli journalist Amira Hass, the first and only Israeli journalist living in the Palestinian Territories, will be awarded the 2003 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize (May 2, 6 p.m.). Ms Hass has been filing compassionate reports about the daily lives and hardships of the Palestinians for the Ha'aretz newspaper, despite restrictions from both Israeli military authorities and Palestinian authorities. Her independent and critical reporting on the policies of both Israelis and Palestinians has exposed her to pressure from both sides.

 

"Amira Hass has been showing outstanding professional commitment and independence, as well as personal courage, over the past decade. If peace is to be established between Israelis and Palestinians it will be thanks to people like Ms Hass who are able to look at the facts and understand them", Mr Matsuura said of the laureate.

 

The Prize was established by UNESCO and the Guillermo Cano Foundation. Colombian journalist Guillermo Cano was assassinated in 1997 and his killers remain unpunished.

 

Previous winners of the World Press Freedom Prize are: Geoffrey Nyarota (Zimbabwe), 2002; imprisoned journalist U Win Tin (Myanmar), 2001; Nizar Nayyouf (Syria), 2000; Jesus Blancornelas (Mexico), 1999; Christina Anyanwu (Nigeria), 1998; and Gao Yu (China), 1997.

 

1 www.cpj.org

2 IAPA has long been an active campaigner for an end to the impunity of crimes against journalists in a region particularly affected by this problem. For more information see: www.impunidad.com

3 See Damocles Network in www.rsf.org




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