States must be held accountable for impunity

As media activists globally commemorate the second International Day to End Impunity on 23 November, attacks against journalists continue, in war zones, as well as in peaceful states. In 2006, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1738 condemning attacks against media workers in armed conflicts and called states to end impunity in killings that occur in such situations. Yet, the Israeli air strikes that also targeted the media in Gaza earlier this week, in which several journalists were injured, shows state disregard for the critical role played by the media in reporting conflicts. UNESCO is also coordinating a UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists, the first effort to systematically bring the agencies under the international body to address the worsening situation of the safety of journalists, media workers and social media producers, and of the culture of impunity surrounding the crimes against them.

In Southeast Asia, the culture of impunity has two faces: one where perpetrators of violence are able to escape punishment for their crimes. Without fear of consequences, it is like issuing a blank cheque for those “annoyed” and “exposed” by the media to continue acts of violence. In its most extreme example of the culture of impunity, the 2009 killing of 58 people, including 32 media workers in Maguindanao, southern Philippines has put to test the political will of the government and the ability of the judiciary to try those suspected for the killings and most importantly, the masterminds behind the brutal murder. Little has improved under the administration of President Benigno C. Aquino III since he took office in 2010, when he pledged to stem the culture of impunity. As the country prepares for national elections in 2013, activists and journalists worry that without stronger institutional progress in ending the culture of impunity, the media will continue to face the risks that led to the killing of 193 journalists since the end of martial law in the mid 1980s.

In Indonesia, journalist Fuad Muhammad Syafruddin, or Udin, was killed in August 1996 for his relentless work in keeping the local government in check through his reports. No one has been held responsible for his murder and 16 years on, the challenge of building a credible prosecution has rendered the authorities ineffective in pursuing the case. After August 2014, prosecution of the attacker(s) will not be possible anymore. Indonesia is yet another example of media killings in a democratic and peaceful nation, and the failure to end this problem will only render the gains made by the people in gaining freedom and human rights, superficial.

The other face of impunity is where states prosecute acts of freedom of expression and are not held accountable for their actions. The arbitrary use of laws, typically on national security, to intimidate, arrest and jail individuals for their expression. In Cambodia and Vietnam, the states have used laws intended to counter insurgency and incitement against the state, and of spreading anti-government propaganda, respectively, to jail journalists and bloggers. In one case in Cambodia, a 70-year old radio station owner, Mam Sonando, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for inciting a secessionist movement, a charge that is clearly politically motivated given that the radio station has been critical of the state and Prime Minister Hun Sen. That the Prime Minister himself issued a public call for Mam Sonando’s arrest shows the high level of state role as perpetrators of media freedom violations. Critics say the courts and prosecutors are not independent since many of them are members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP), leading to verdicts based on unreasonable accusations and the lack of compelling evidence.

The web of impunity where the state is the perpetrator and affords escaping any scrutiny, is nowhere more pronounced than in Vietnam. First you get harassed for using the online space to express your views, then you get arrested, then you get thrown in jail for some dubious accusations. Then your lawyer is arrested. Someone attending your trial is detained while making his way to the court. Your family is constantly harassed and any international criticism of the situation is rubbished as misleading and malicious. This is the story of blogger Dieu Cay, who continues to languish in prison, for charges that ranged from tax evasion to spreading propaganda against the government, the latter thrown at him when he was already serving a sentence.

In less monitored Laos where most media outlets are state run and controlled, the “threats” of impunity are more insidous – the government gets to decide what programs can stay on air – and there is little accountability in the decision. The only radio talk show, which has also gained popularity for encouraging citizens to share their views and expectations of elected representatives, has been taken off the air with no just cause or reason. It doesn’t take a violent action to send a signal of what will and will not be tolerated, and such arbitrary decisions are in violation of the country’s relatively progressive media law.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance recorded 100 cases of impunity – stemming from the absence of investigation or prosecution in crimes against the media, and states’ free hand in abusing laws to silence critics – in almost all countries in the region, this year. Free speech and a free media is seriously under threat in this region of 600 million people, and unless states are held accountable to exercise both positive obligations to ensure the safety of journalists and to refrain from committing violations against the media, more and more journalists will have to risk their lives to seek and provide news and information to the citizens.

The media and public must be more vigilant against these tactics used to silence voices, whether they are among journalists reporting on issues or individuals who try to fill in the gaps in providing spaces for discussion where the mainstream media is constrained. The date 23 November should not just be another calendar day to remember media workers who lost their lives or were punished for their work. It should serve as a stark reminder of the failure of states to combat the problem and to allow for its citizens to live at risk for exercising their rights. No one will dare to speak if free speech is not protected. (by Gayathry Venkiteswaran)

Gayathry Venkiteswaran is Executive Director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. The 23 November International Day to End Impunity is a global campaign organized for the first time in 2011. It marks the anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.