In April 2012, the heads of the United Nations agencies adopted an integrated plan of action on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, following increasing calls globally to address the alarming rate of violent threats against the media.
The safety plan reflected the urgent reality that a coordinated action across different interest groups and areas of work was needed to combat this deadly trend, where over 660 journalists have been killed since 1992 and 90 percent of those murders committed with impunity, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Threats against the media and free expression are intricately linked with other facets of the political economy of societies that have seen worrying trends, with little or no efforts forthcoming in bringing the perpetrators to justice. The media, while ideally tasked with the role as a watchdog, together with human rights defenders, bore the brunt of violent responses in cases linked to organized crime, corruption, and abuse of power.
The UN plan, initiated by UNESCO, which has the mandate on freedom of expression and media freedom, sends a clear signal that the work to end impunity needs a multi-sectoral approach. In other words, it’s not just the business of the media to defend itself, but it’s a concern that must be shared by civil society groups and institutions working on a range of issues. From anti-corruption to access to health, minority rights to forced evictions, environmental protection to labour rights, journalists have been targeted for reporting these issues across the world where states have either been the perpetrators or have failed in their duty to protect citizens.
In the last few weeks, words like “impunity” and “amnesty” have dominated the local and foreign media covering Thailand, following government attempts to legislate against accountability in a series of serious political incidents in the last decade. Groups from both sides of the long-running political divide have voiced concerns about the law, including the impact on human rights and anti-corruption. The stakeholders in the issue of impunity come from a wide section of the population.
Two of the more than 90 killed during the April-May 2010 political unrest, were journalists. Freelance photographer Fabio Polenghi and Reuters cameraman Hiroyuki Muramoto were shot and killed in separate military crackdowns. While an inquest earlier this year concluded that the bullet that killed Polenghi came from the direction of where the military personnel were located, the court stopped short of determining who is responsible for his death. The proposed law, if it had been passed, would have been a carte blanche for those directly responsible for killing and injuring civilians in the clashes.
This, like the inertia of many other states in fixing the laws and processes that have allowed for the killings to go unresolved, falls short of the recent United Nations Human Rights Council resolution adopted on the safety of journalists. Among others, members of the council expressed in the September 2012 resolution concern that attacks against journalists often occur with impunity, and strongly urged states to ensure accountability and bring to justice those responsible for the acts of violence.
Free expression groups welcome the resolutions and UN commitments, as these provide them with the international backing when advocating for improvements with their respective governments. These also help push forward the global campaign initiated by media freedom advocates three years ago, to raise public awareness on the threats of impunity in media killing, in commemorating the killings of 32 media workers in Maguindanao, Philippines on 23 November 2009.
On the other hand, impunity has been a long standing issue in the human rights community, associated mainly with addressing past abuses after political transitions. But the reality on the ground is that journalists’ safety is only slowly featuring in the broader campaign in the promotion of human rights, where in the past typical media concerns like ethical breaches and threats of censorship have been confined to the industry.
The time has come for the media and the wider civil society community to work together to translate these important international documents into real action domestically.