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Press freedom: too many attacks go unpunished

Thousands of journalists have been killed for reporting on issues of public interest and social justice. Together, the International Press Institute and Transparency International are working to end impunity; to make sure that reporting on crime, politics and corruption is no longer a matter of life and death. As advocates for press freedom and against corruption, it is our collective obligation to demand justice and ensure that those trying to suppress the voice of the people do not get away with it.

The date 23 November marks the anniversary of one of the most tragic events in the recent history of press freedom: the murder of 32 journalists and 26 civilians in a terrible incident of electoral violence. It is widely known as the Maguindanao Massacre after the province in the Philippines where it took place. Four years after this event – in a country where journalists have been victims of deadly attacks for decades – no one has been sentenced in connection with the massacre.

The media plays a crucial role covering the devastating effects of corruption and providing citizens with information that enables them to stand up to it. An independent and free media is a cornerstone of democracy and a vital pillar of national integrity and good governance. It is a public watchdog on the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery.

Corruption is a covert and concealed crime, but the media and investigative journalists can shine a light on those who use their entrusted power for personal gain. Journalists uncover corrupt acts and expose bribery schemes. In Latin America, for example, the work of investigative journalists played a central role in the ousting of several corrupt presidents including Fernando Collor de Mello of Brazil, Abdalá Bucarám Ortíz of Ecuador and Alberto Fujimori of Peru.

At the best of times, good journalism gives the public the comfort in knowing that wrongdoers will be called to account. However, the story is not always so straight-forward or pleasant. Many journalists operate in difficult and dangerous environments. In some parts of the world, journalists who seek to expose economic and political corruption do so at great personal risk. At least 97 journalists have been killed so far in 2013.

The date 23 November reminds us that the murdering of journalists for their work must be stopped. Killing journalists has become an easy way to stop the circulation of certain information or opinions, or a way to prevent the exposure of wrongdoing and corruption. The fact that authorities fail to investigate these crimes, feeding the ability of criminals to act with impunity, is unacceptable.

Impunity fuels violence

In 2011 the General Meeting of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX), a coalition of press freedom and freedom of expression organisations, declared 23 November the International Day to End Impunity, highlighting the role that impunity plays in fostering violence against those who exercise their basic right to free expression.

“Impunity is a particularly difficult evil to counter because it is self-reinforcing,” International Press Institute said on that occasion. “When governments fail to investigate journalistic killings, it sends a message that the lives of journalists and the work of the media are trivial.” In the words of Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, impunity is “a major, if not the main, cause” of the high number of journalists killed every year.

Impunity in attacks against journalists is sometimes generated by weak and poorly functioning state institutions that fail to investigate crimes against journalists or to bring culprits to justice. It can also be the consequence of a lack of will of those in power.

Furthermore, the 2013 Global Corruption Barometer shows that one in four people report having paid a bribe in the last 12 months when interacting with key public institutions and services. In countries with high levels of impunity, this number tends to be much higher. Impunity and corruption are dynamically interlinked as one can be the cause of the other.

In countries as different as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Mexico, successive governments have repeatedly expressed commitments to fight the “culture of impunity”, widely considered the root cause of the violence. In some cases new laws were passed and new institutions created to facilitate the course of justice. Still, journalists are murdered with impunity. As Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said in 2012, no solution to fight impunity could substitute for the “political will of governments”.

In Ukraine, numerous journalists reported attacks in the run up to the October 2012 parliamentary election and during the course of this year. In late 2011, all charges were dropped against former President Leonid Kuchma in connection with the 2000 disappearance of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, whose headless body was later found in a wooded area.

In early 2013, former senior police officer Oleksiy Pukach was sentenced to life in prison for murdering Gongadze. Pukach said that he would only accept his sentence when Kuchma and Volodymyr Lytvyn, Kuchma’s former chief of staff, “join me in this cage”. According to the Global Corruption Barometer, the police, followed by the judiciary, are the institutions that solicit bribes most often around the world in the past year. In Ukraine, 49 percent of people reported paying a bribe to the police in the past year and 84 per cent of respondents felt that the police were corrupt or extremely corrupt. Some 87 per cent felt the same about the judiciary.
In 2000, the global anti-corruption community recognised leading Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge’s fearless pursuit of the truth and the years he spent exposing corruption in Sri Lankan politics by granting him Transparency International’s very first Integrity Award. At that time Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader newspaper, had already been subject to defamation charges after exposing political corruption, which saw his newspaper temporarily banned by the Sri Lankan government. Even then, he and his family faced threats and physical attacks.

Wickrematunge’s murder in 2009 is one more chilling instance of a pattern of violence and intimidation against the media and civil society. In a posthumous editorial that was published in The Sunday Leader a few days after his death, he wrote: “Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty … Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last”. Despite the brutal murder having been followed by the editorial speaking of its inevitability, not a single person has been convicted for the murder.

Both the International Press Institute and Transparency International believe there is much that can be done to end impunity. For us, bending the law, beating the system or escaping punishment – and getting away with it – define impunity for corruption.

Transparency InternationaI works to increase accountability with the aim of making it ever more difficult for individuals, corporations and others to get away with corruption.

Transparency International supports and promotes a free and responsible press to seek accountability, to stop perpetrators from acting with impunity and to promote the transparency that empowers citizens to make informed decisions.

The International Press Institute supports the development of specific institutions and laws aimed at ensuring that journalists can work freely and safely, as well as the adherence to editorial practices that pursue the same aim.

A strong alliance between the media and civil society organisations boosts the watchdog functions of both for the public good, and keeps accountability and transparency high on the world’s agenda. By working together, leaders in both fields provide in-depth knowledge to people around the world about ways in which corruption is affecting them directly, and how to join the fight against it.


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