Combating Impunity of Crimes against Press Freedom

“Impunity means the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account - whether in criminal, civil, administrative or disciplinary proceedings - since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims”.

On average, in past years, only about one-in-ten cases of crimes against journalists, media workers, and social media producers has led to a conviction . This level of impunity is not just bad in principle in terms of flouting the rule of law, in terms of which every State has a duty to protect its citizens in general. Of even greater concern, because of the visibility involved, impunity for attacks on journalists in particular sends a signal to the wider public to keep quiet about corruption, environmental damage or human rights violations. The result is self-censorship across a society and an erosion of public faith in the judicial system. In this way, impunity also feeds a vicious cycle. Those who threaten or use violence against journalists are emboldened when they see that it is possible to disregard any prospect of punishment. “When impunity becomes pervasive, it activates a self-propelling, re-energizing cycle with every additional infringement that the low risk of punishment inspires”.

However, while recognizing that investigating crimes against journalists remains the responsibility of Member States, the acts of violence and intimidation (including murder, abduction, hostage taking, harassment, intimidation and illegal arrest and detention) are becoming ever more frequent in a variety of contexts. Notably, the threat posed by non-state actors such as extremist organizations and criminal enterprises is growing. This merits a careful, context-sensitive consideration of the differing needs of journalists in conflict and non-conflict zones, as well as of the different legal instruments available to ensure their protection. It also necessitates an investigation into how the dangers faced by journalists in situations that do not qualify as armed conflicts in the strictest sense (such as sustained confrontation between organized crime groups) may be dealt with. At the same time, the scourge of impunity needs to be analysed in terms of the chain of actors involved in judicial proceedings, ranging from political will of the executive and the legislature, through to the legal framework, the institutional design of protective, investigative and prosecution agencies, and the backlog of courts.

Various countries and organizations have been working on reducing impunity independently or in close cooperation.  The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issues an annual index on impunity tracking some of the highest rates of impunity around the world. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Inter American Press Association (IAPA) have regular programmes and reports on impunity.  IFEX has led the process in the promotion of the International Day to End Impunity on 23 November as a global awareness raising campaign. What are some of the more effective measures taken globally to reduce impunity? And can they be replicated elsewhere? What are the lessons to be learnt?

Points for reflection:

  • What is the extent of impunity in your country and how best to address it?
  • What is the state of impunity globally?
  • How to improve research into the extent, visibility and consequences of impunity?
  • What are some of the good practices of to fight impunity that could be replicated elsewhere?
  • Is the legal justice chain adequately designed and equipped to handle crimes against freedom of expression?
  • What are the challenges of investigating crimes against press freedom when these are committed by non-state actors including extremist organizations or criminal enterprises?
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