Impunity has always been ranked as a top priority for IFEX members. So it comes as no surprise that at the 2011 IFEX Strategy Conference in Beirut, Lebanon, last week, IFEX members announced they are joining forces to launch the first ever International Day to End Impunity on 23 November, the anniversary of the single deadliest attack on journalists in recent history: the 2009 Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines.
On the heels of this announcement the members learned that Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad had been found murdered in Islamabad, most likely for his reporting on ties between Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s navy.
Shahzad is also one of 16 journalists that have been killed in Pakistan since 2000. Yet, as Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) points out, only one conviction has ever been recorded – for the high-profile murder of “Wall Street Journal” reporter Daniel Pearl. With a record like this, it seems not unreasonable that justice will be illusive in Shahzad’s case.
“The death of Saleem Shahzad was a new low for us, for Pakistan. We could not have imagined it,” said PPF secretary general Owais Aslam Ali, who was also a close friend of Shahzad’s.
Unfortunately, Shahzad’s case is not the exception. In the free expression community alone, more than 500 journalists have been killed in the past 10 years and in nine out of 10 cases, the killers have gone free.
The hope is that the International Day to End Impunity will highlight the attempts to address this issue by IFEX members.
“The day will be a platform… to demand that journalists’ killers do not go free, and to ensure that our colleagues working in countries with continuous and rampant impunity feel that their work is valued and their life is treasured,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
According to CPJ’s 2011 Impunity Index, also released at the IFEX conference, Iraq once again ranked the highest in terms of unsolved murders (92) in the past 10 years. But no region is left untouched: Somalia and the Philippines, which joined Iraq at the top of the index, showed either no improvement or worsening records.
Russia and Mexico, “two of the world’s most murderous countries for the press, are heading in different directions in combating deadly anti-press violence.” In Russia there’s been a slight improvement with more convictions and fewer murders. (During the conference one of Anna Politkovskaya’s triggermen was arrested.) The situation has worsened in Mexico, where journalists now purposely avoid sensitive topics.
“Impunity is a key indicator in assessing levels of press freedom and free expression in nations worldwide,” said CPJ.
And yet, there is hope: a conference discussion focused on counteractions that can be taken to fight against impunity – especially with the knowledge that 40 percent of journalists who are murdered are threatened beforehand.
For example, in the Philippines, “the counter-impunity campaign involves initiatives to reform the problematic criminal justice system,” said the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), from amending the penal code to modifying the witness protection programme.
Colombia’s better standing in the rankings was in large part due to the government’s special protection programme, which provides physical protection to journalists in danger, said Colombia’s Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP). Free expression advocates in Mexico are now pressuring their government to follow in Colombia’s footsteps.
In the run up to 23 November, IFEX members involved in countering impunity will discuss and analyse these and other emerging trends, and come up with new strategies that will strengthen their counter-impunity campaign.
“At our office we see all these creative initiatives IFEX members take on to address impunity in their own contexts,” explained Annie Game, executive director of IFEX. “We need a better way to promote this work and having a day to focus on is an important first step in building awareness and proposing concrete actions to address impunity.”
Said IFJ Asia-Pacific’s Jacqui Park, “I do think our best chance of [combating impunity] is by working together with our partners on the ground, and not giving up our struggle. Concerted international advocacy works, as in the case of [wrongfully detained Sri Lankan journalist] J.S. Tissainayagam, who was eventually pardoned. Forums like IFEX give us the best chance of success.”
IFEX will be showcasing the work of its members fighting impunity on a special website dedicated to the day, which will also provide ways in which you can take action. Stay tuned.