Impunity for crimes against journalists raises concerns over serious failings of rule of law and justice within countries to the very forefront. In fact, under a regime of impunity journalists are no longer safeguarded by the application of constitutional provision or law enforcement and their safety becomes their own responsibility, a private concern to be undertaken without recourse to the provision by the state of personal security.

Impunity is a problem of global magnitude and violates the fundamental rights of journalists as crimes perpetrated against them remain without legal redress or consequences for the perpetrators.

In their 2019 Impunity Index, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that pervasive impunity trends combined with the ‘knowledge that authorities take little action against those who attack the press, cripples the ability of journalists around the world to do their job’.

Highlighting the ‘worst impunity offenders’ the CPJ Impunity Index ‘represents a mix of conflict-ridden regions and more stable countries where criminal groups, politicians, government officials, and other powerful actors resort to violence to silence critical and investigative reporting. Unchecked corruption, ineffective institutions, and lack of political will to pursue robust investigations are all factors behind impunity’.

During 2019, the investigations into case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October last year clearly show the challenges facing those trying to bring perpetrators to justice. Leading the international human rights inquiry into the killing, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary, Agnes Callamard, emphasised that ‘the killing of Mr. Khashoggi violated both international law and core rules of international relations, including the requirements for lawful use of diplomatic missions’. Indeed, ‘guarantees of immunity were never intended to facilitate the commission of a crime and exonerate its authors of their criminal responsibility or to conceal a violation of the right to life. The circumstances of the killing and the response by State representatives in its aftermath may be described as “immunity for impunity”’

In light of intensive advocacy work, inquiries into the murder of Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová who were shot dead on February 21 2018 recently resulted in four people recently being charged with their murder.

At the same time however civil society organisations continue to call for justice in the case of the assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Another example of a journalist being murdered in Europe. As reported by Reporters Without Borders two years after her murder ‘there has still been no justice for this heinous assassination, which has shed light on broader systemic failings with regard to Malta’s press freedom climate, rule of law, and democratic checks and balances’.

Research undertaken at the Centre for Freedom of the Media into the ‘Politics of Impunity’ shows that impunity is a policy of governance used as a political tool by the state and state-sponsored actors to achieve journalistic self-censorship’. Furthermore, The Politics of Impunity legitimise the use of violence and intimidation against journalists and have become a persistent feature of modern governance around the world. Their relative invisibility allows states to claim that they endorse media freedom and that their constitutions protect it while actively utilising impunity to prevent journalists from doing their job.

In my capacity as UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity I would like to take this opportunity, on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, to encourage the community of academic scholars to engage with issues of journalism safety and impunity from a range of perspectives to contribute to, expand and deepen our current understandings and knowledge of these problems. Ultimately establishing a reliable knowledgebase is the very starting point for addressing the complex problems of safety and impunity.

This is one of the things we are trying to achieve through our Journalism Safety Research Network where we are working within and across disciplinary boundaries to build greater research capacity which comes from both depth and breadth of knowledge as well as new methodological innovations, alongside input from those who have practical knowledge and experience.