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Judiciary, key to ending impunity for crimes against journalists, says UNESCO

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Audrey Azoulay

To mobilse judicial actors to end crimes against journalists, the United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and members of the Group of Friends on Safety of Journalists, on March 1, 2021, brought together media experts and the judiciary.

Although impunity in attacks against journalists remains extremely high, a concerted action of the judiciary system, law enforcement institutions, civil society, and the media is essential to shift the lines and raise significantly the price of killing journalists. This is the only way to deter further killings and break the cycle of violence against media professionals.

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Titled, ‘The role of the judiciary and international cooperation to foster the safety of journalists – What works?’, the event attracted a host of panelists that included Pauli van Wyk, a South African investigative journalist; Mithila Farzana, a Bangladeshi editor; Ricardo Sánchez Pérez Del Pozo, Special Prosecutor’s Office for Attention to Crimes Committed against Freedom of Expression in Mexico City; Yetnayet Desalegn, a representative from the Judicial Training Institute of Ethiopia and Horace Adjolohoun, the principal legal officer at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Also present were Pedro José Vaca Villareal, special rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; human rights and media law barrister, Caoilfhionn Gallagher; Irene Khan, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression; Baroness Helena Kennedy, Director of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute and Jeanette Manning, the Director of the NATGRI Centre for International Partnerships and Strategic Collaboration, and representative of the International Association of Prosecutors.

To address these challenges, UNESCO and the International Association of Prosecutors have developed guidelines for prosecutors on cases of crimes against journalists.

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The guidelines are currently available in English as well as in Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish and will soon be available in additional languages.

The panelists called for the strengthening of legal frameworks and the training of members of the judiciary on these issues in order to tackle the problem.

The meeting also discussed good practices with regard to fighting the impunity of violence against journalists.

The panelists observed that if society understands the relationship between the work of journalists and democracy, the situation would improve.

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They noted that the challenges of obtaining justice for crimes against journalists are especially prevalent when it comes to investigating and prosecuting gender-based crimes against women journalists.

Panelists Pauli van Wyk, a South African investigative journalist, and Mithila Farzana, a Bangladeshi editor, shared their experience with online violence, an issue that is endemic to women journalists.

A recent UNESCO/ICFJ study, which reached over 900 respondents in 125 countries, has found that 73 per cent of women journalists surveyed had experienced online violence in the course of their work.

Kennedy and Manning expressed deepening concern for the prolonged time to prosecute crimes due to inadequate resources and lack of capacity.

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This suggestsed why Desalegn and Adjolohoun strongly echoed the need for more robust training of judicial actors, such as judges, prosecutors, and lawyers, on freedom of expression and safety of journalists.

Villareal equally shed light on the lack of recognition of crimes faced by women journalists, such as online violence and abuse, both in law and in practice. Failure to address and prosecute these gender-based attacks and to recognise them as legitimate safety risks can have dire consequences.

Gallagher brought attention to the case of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been a victim of harassment and abuse for decades before her murder in 2017.

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Between 2006 and 2020, according to UNESCO Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, 174 journalists have been killed in Africa, with only 10.3 per cent of cases reported as being judicially resolved.

Despite these grim statistics, a series of landmark decisions by the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights directly contributed to strengthening freedom of expression and to fighting impunity for crimes committed against journalists on the continent.

One of such landmark decisions occurred in 2015 when the African Court ordered the reopening of the investigation of Burkinabe investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, whose body was found badly burned in a car in 1998, along with the bodies of three colleagues. Zongo worked for I’Indépendant and was investigating the killing of the driver of a member of the President’s family at the time of his murder.

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A commission to investigate the crime was established by the President and was able to identify the suspects. Yet only one of the five was charged and the charges were subsequently dropped. In 2006, the case was closed for lack of evidence, until the African Court reordered to open it.

Since 2017, UNESCO and the African Court have been working together to promote the freedom of expression and safety of journalists in the African continent. Through these efforts, more than 1,800 judicial actors in Africa have been trained on these issues, and in 2018, the two organisations signed a Memorandum of Understanding to further strengthen their cooperation.

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However, violence against journalists in Mexico remains very high with over 103 journalists killed in the last 10 years (2010-2020) and only 11 cases reported as judicially resolved so far. These worrisome statistics show how severe and complex the issue is, even when institutional efforts are being implemented.

In the last eight years, more than 18,000 judicial actors in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East have been trained. According to UNESCO’s data, the rate of impunity for cases of killings against journalists remains high with only 13 per cent of cases around the world judicially solved. In rare cases, the perpetrator is brought to justice.

UNESCO has also organised a series of trainings on the ground and online on the freedom of expression and safety of journalists. This is part of a broader campaign conducted over the last decade. Experiences from across the globe show that law enforcement institutions, civil society, and the media are essential to shift the lines and raise significantly the price of killing journalists. This is the only way to deter further killings and break the cycle of violence against media professionals.

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