November 20, 2020

Ending Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists


In the past decade alone, nearly 1,000 journalists globally have been killed in connection with their work, and full or partial impunity has been the rule. The United Nations should appoint a Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists, with the aim of enforcing international law and reducing the death toll.

PARIS – In many ways, there has never been a more dangerous time for journalists than the present. With simultaneous crises threatening media freedom and sustainability, this decade will be decisive for the future of a vocation that is crucial for societies’ well-being. What would the world look like if there were no professional, ethical journalists to report the news? Worryingly, this question is no longer hypothetical.

The issue of reporters’ safety remains vitally important. Although killings of journalists have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, threats to their safety continue to evolve and increase. These threats are also becoming more nuanced and harder to combat.

Last year, more journalists were killed in countries supposedly at peace than in war zones, and the percentage of reporters killed on the job who were deliberately targeted was higher than ever before. Many of the victims were working to expose corruption and report on other sensitive topics.

Just a few days ago, on October 29, reporter Arturo Alba Medina was killed in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, near the US border. He was the sixth journalist murdered this year in Mexico, which remains the deadliest country not at war.

In the past decade alone, nearly 1,000 journalists globally have been killed in connection with their work. Many of these cases have never been properly investigated, and the vast majority of perpetrators have never been held to account. This is largely because of the lack of effective mechanisms of accountability to ensure that justice is served.

This year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, on November 2, is an ideal opportunity to start taking concrete action to end this endemic impunity for good. The United Nations should appoint a Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists, with the aim of enforcing international law and thereby finally reducing the number of reporters killed every year in the course of their work.

The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) campaign to establish a special representative has gained tremendous momentum in recent years, but one obstacle remains. Because the appointee would be a representative of the UN secretary-general, we need the secretary-general’s active support. Unfortunately, António Guterres has not yet lived up to the promise he made when we met one month after he took office in 2017: “It will take time, but I will do it,” he told me.

Guterres now has a little more than a year of his current term remaining. That is more than enough time to ensure meaningful action to end impunity and protect journalists. Guterres’s appointment of a member of his staff as a contact person on this issue – the only concrete step he has taken so far – is not enough.

The mandate for a special representative would not be merely a paper-based exercise that generates more reporting. Rather, it would be a means of bringing together the relevant existing UN mechanisms, resolutions, and recommendations to ensure meaningful coordination and implementation to achieve accountability for crimes committed against journalists everywhere. Appointing a special representative would ensure that good intentions lead to real-world results.

Tangible impact is desperately needed in many of the cases in which RSF is involved – including that of Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Many of the cases concern investigative journalists, including Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated in 2017 by a car bomb outside her home in Malta; Ján Kuciak, shot dead in 2018 along with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, inside their home in Slovakia; the Belarusian journalist Pavel Sheremet, killed by a car bomb in 2016 in Kyiv; and the Ghanaian journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale, shot three times in 2019 while driving his car in Accra.

There are many other cases. The young freelance journalist Christopher Allen was killed in 2017 while reporting on the civil conflict in South Sudan, and Kirill Radtchenko, Alexandre Rasstorgouïev, and Orhan Djemal were murdered in 2018 while making a documentary about Russian mercenaries in the Central African Republic.

Enough is enough. RSF calls for concrete action now to end violence against all journalists, wherever they live and work. We call on the UN secretary-general to support the establishment of a Special Representative for the Safety of Journalists, and for member states to enable and support the work of this crucial mandate. Finally, we call on the international public – and decision-makers – to join our campaign to end impunity for crimes against journalists once and for all.

Christophe Deloire is Secretary-General of Reporters Without Borders, known internationally as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF).

The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website

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