End Impunity Day London Event 2 November 2015 – Report: Stop the Killing of Journalists! Prevention and Justice to end Impunity. Public debate in the UK Parliament on 2 November 2015, organised by the Centre for Freedom of the Media, University of Sheffield; PEN International; Article 19; and UNESCO
On 2 November 2015 International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists was marked in London by a public debate in Parliament, attended by about 60 people, including UNESCO’s Deputy Director-General, Getachew Engida, parliamentarians, diplomats, journalists and representatives of civil society groups.
Mr Engida presented UNESCO’s World Trends in Freedom of Expression: Special Digital Focus 2015. Its figures show that a total of 178 journalists and other media workers were killed in 2013 and 2014. In the past decade over seven hundred journalists have been killed worldwide, and in fewer than one in ten of those cases have any perpetrators been brought to justice. The high rate of impunity represents a vicious cycle of violence, Mr Engida said. UNESCO would use its mandate to speak out loud and clear for actions to strengthen journalists’ safety and end impunity.
In fewer than one in ten of those cases have any perpetrators been brought to justice.
Paul Farrelly, MP, who sponsored the meeting in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Room, called for more intense global efforts to punish those responsible for targeted attacks on journalists, such as last January’s cold-blooded killings at the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in Paris.
A first panel of journalists, chaired by William Horsley, international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media, gave first-hand accounts of violence and intimidation in the field and the chilling effect of impunity. A second panel discussion, moderated by Salil Tripathi, chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International, examined shortcomings in state responses, justice systems and political accountability.
Speakers emphasised the hostile and repressive environment for journalists stemming from the misuse by governments of surveillance powers and anti-terrorism and state security laws, which make journalists vulnerable to judicial abuse and violence and deprives them of legal redress for crimes committed against them. Many examples were cited indicating that such abuses of state power can lead to a general culture of impunity, in which information is severely restricted and public trust in national systems of justice is undermined or lost.
Alaa Bayoumi, an Egyptian national and senior editor at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, spoke of his disbelief two years ago when he was accused in absentia in Egypt of false reporting and supporting a terrorist organisation — the same charges as three of his Al Jazeera colleagues who were arrested and jailed in Egypt. No real evidence had been produced against any of them, Alaa said, but the charges against him and several others are still outstanding. He is still unable to return safely to his own country. He stated that at least 60 journalists are still behind bars in Egypt; but journalists in Egypt cannot report freely so many serious injustices go unreported.
Freelance journalist Emma Beals, who has often gone into Syria in the past three years to report on the war, said she had survived being arrested at gunpoint and attacked on those assignments, and 85 journalists had been kidnapped or killed in the conflict there. Those dangers mean that ‘no news gets out’ from the areas controlled by the so-called Islamic State group, she said. She described her shock at the deaths of journalist colleagues, including the American journalist James Foley, adding that her motive in taking such risks herself was so that people in the West ‘can’t say they didn’t know what was happening’.
Kevin Sutcliffe, Head of News Programmes (EU) for Vice News, said the channel’s safety protocols had been dramatically changed to take account of the increased risks of field reporting. He described present conditions for journalists operating in difficult or dangerous environments – even in Europe – as ‘open season’ for attacks and abuses against them. He cited the case of Mohammed Rasool, a member of a Vice News TV team which was in South-Eastern Turkey to report on armed clashes between PKK fighters and Turkish security forces. Rasool was arrested in late August together with two British journalists, all of them accused of involvement in terrorism because of their reporting work. The two Britons had been freed after 11 days but Rasool, an Iraqi Kurd, had been kept in detention for ten weeks, charged only with working for an unnamed terrorist organisation. Kevin Sutcliffe described the charges as ludicrous. He added that international attempts to lodge appeals through political or judicial routes had been blocked.
Peter Greste, the Australian-Latvian correspondent for Al Jazeera who spent 400 days in prison in Egypt on terrorism charges before he was freed in February 2015, said it had become an almost standard tactic by some governments to use national security or anti-terrorism charges as an excuse to lock up journalists. The words used by former US President George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks– that you are ‘either with us or with the terrorists’ — had served to take away the neutral middle ground which journalists need to do their work, he argued. The massive and successful international campaign for his release showed, he said, what could be achieved ‘when we act with common purpose’. But he said the media should be exerting more pressure on governments globally, including for local journalists who are targeted in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East.
Joanna Evans, a barrister and legal director of the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC), said international human rights courts are often the only places where impunity can be effectively challenged. She described the case of Maksim Maksimov, a Russian investigative reporter who disappeared in St Petersburg in 2004, as a textbook case of impunity. The investigating authorities, she said, provided no information on the case for a whole year, forensic standards failed, a witness had been paid, officials had failed to respond to pleading messages from Maksimov’s mother, and she had eventually died last year with the case still unresolved and the Russian state disclaiming any responsibility for multiple failures in the investigation. The case is now being heard at the European Court of Human Rights, and is seen as a landmark case regarding a state’s responsibility for impunity in a case involving the death of a journalist.
Thomas Hughes, director of Article 19, pointed to the troubling growth in killings of journalists and bloggers – as well as the prevalence of impunity — in countries as diverse as Bangladesh and India, South Sudan and Nigeria, and Mexico and Brazil. Efforts to combat impunity should, he said, focus on ways of holding states to account, and improving the quality of data available to relevant UN bodies.
Efforts to combat impunity should, he said, focus on ways of holding states to account
Rob Fenn, the head of the Human Rights and Democracy Department at the UK Foreign Office, said he and his colleagues see many opportunities to join forces with the media to protect and promote freedom of expression around the world as what he called a traditional British ‘Unique Selling Point’. He underlined the importance of gathering evidence of serious human rights abuses in conflicts such as the war in Syria, so that justice could eventually be done. A statement marking the day and remembering the threat facing journalists was issued by the UK Minister for Human Rights, Baroness. In it she said that a free media plays a vital role in a functioning democracy, that journalists are frequently targeted for their work, and that impunity must end.
Other speakers voiced concern about recent statements by UK ministers hinting that the country might in some circumstances seek to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and a public statement made last month by the most senior Foreign Office official, Sir Simon McDonald, that human rights are ‘no longer a top priority for the government.
The London meeting brought some concrete proposals for actions to prevent and combat impunity for crimes against journalists. They include: a more robust focus on rule of law issues in international forums, parliaments and the media; building better mechanisms among media organisations themselves to protect journalists from violence and judicial abuse; and mobilising the 53-member Commonwealth, many of whose members have a poor record on journalists’ safety and impunity, to heed UNESCO’s call for regional organisations to actively support the goals of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Commonwealth heads of government are due to meet very soon, in Malta on 27-29 November.
PEN International, which campaigns in support of writers across the globe who are persecuted or attacked for their work, publicised a list of 50 writers who were killed in the 12 months up to 2 November 2015.