For many, November 2 is simply another tally on the countdown to the holiday season. For journalists around the world, this day is an important anniversary. The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists is a reminder of how far the world still has to go in order to obtain a safe and free environment for those who work in journalism and media.
This date was chosen in commemoration of two French journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, who were kidnapped and executed while reporting in Mali on November 2 of 2013. The case was preceded by the memorable killings of journalists Daniel Pearl who was decapitated in Pakistan in 2002 and Enzo Baldoni in Iraq in 2004.
On December 18, 2013, a resolution was signed by the United Nations General Assembly, insisting member states begin to address the issue of crimes against journalists. The document not only publicly condemns attacks on journalists but also asks that states collaborate with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to “promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently…”
The importance of the resolution lies in its significant impact on the global community. By officially denouncing impunity‒exemption from punishment or consequences‒for crimes against journalists, the UN also condemned impunity for all crimes that violate human rights.
According to UNESCO’s website, 930 journalists have been killed in the past 11 years, equaling about one death per week. Other crimes against journalists include torture, arbitrary detention, intimidation, harassment and sexual attacks. A majority of these crimes go unpunished. In fact, nine out of ten cases of crimes against journalists do not see justice.
UNESCO plans to launch a campaign titled “My Killers are Still Free” on November 17 to raise further awareness for this issue. Part of the campaign includes telling the stories of the victims of these crimes through their friends and relatives.
Sonali Samarasinghe is the widow of Sri Lankan activist and journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, founder of The Sunday Leader. Both were editors of a paper criticizing the Sri Lankan government, Samarasinghe was forced to leave the country and her husband was assassinated in 2009.
“The impunity against journalists and violence against the press is not only an assault on media and civilians but also on the dispersion of information …That is why for the public, it is really important not only to heed the warnings of journalists and civil society, but to protect their rights.” said Samarasinghe in an audio testimony for UNESCO’s campaign.
While it may seem as though the western world has little to worry about as far as freedom of the press is concerned, this is not actually the case. The U.S.-based non-governmental organization called Freedom House found that due to “unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media,” freedom of the press worldwide diminished to the lowest point in 13 years in 2016.
But what does this mean for you and me? Less freedom of the press means less freedom to be made aware of what is happening in the world. UNESCO experts who study impunity conclude, naturally, if fewer cases of violence against journalists are brought to justice, it’s more likely these crimes will occur and multiply. So if individuals cannot report news of crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses, these crimes will continue to occur in larger numbers than ever before.
Even as more member states in the UN are beginning to respond to crimes against journalists in their own countries, there is still a worrisome lack of convictions for these crimes, according to the UNESCO Director General’s 2016 Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity. Only about eight percent of the 827 cases of assassinated journalists from 2006-2015 have been reported as resolved.
There will be an interactive panel discussion at the UN Headquarters in New York to discuss UNESCO’s progress November 2. The panel will also discuss the latest findings in the World Trends and Freedom of Expression and Media Development: 2017/18 Global Report which will be available to the public on this day as well.
You can help bring awareness for crimes against journalists and join the social media campaign by using the hashtags #EndImpunity and #Journosafe. For more information you can visit the UNESCO website or any of the following NGO websites: Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch or the the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Photo courtesy of UNESCO