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RIGHTS: Impunity Reigns in Journalist Murders

Mirela Xanthaki

NEW YORK, May 2 2008 (IPS) - Over the last 15 years, at least 500 journalists were killed directly because of their work. But in less than 15 percent of cases have the perpetrators been brought to justice, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

"Every time a journalist is murdered and the killer is allowed to walk free, it sends a terrible signal to the press and to others who would harm journalists," said Joel Simon, executive director of CPJ.

Murder is used by states as the ultimate form of censorship, and the more these cases go unpunished, the more the press is silenced. In 2007 alone, there were 65 murders of journalists in connection to their reporting, making it the second deadliest year on record. Governments in most of these cases lack the will or the capacity to prosecute these crimes, CPJ says.

At a press conference held at the U.N. headquarters Tuesday, Simon, CPJ&#39s Communications Director Abi Wright, and CPJ board member and award-winning journalist from the Philippines, Sheila Coronel, released the "Impunity Index", which lists countries where murders of journalists are neither investigated nor solved.

Last November, CPJ launched the Global Initiative to Combat Impunity. The Index coincides with the World Press Freedom Day on May 4.

Countries that have been on the list in the past have refuted it by attacking CPJ&#39s methodology. This time, the list simply tallies the cases of journalists murdered in direct relation to their work and for which no conviction followed. For a country to be included on the list, there must be more than five unsolved murder cases from the years 1998 to 2007.


While expressing alarm at the number of journalists killed in conflict zones, CPJ did not include those cases for the sake of objectivity. Cases where there was a conviction of the assassin but not the mastermind were considered "solved" and not included on the list.

The countries highest on the Index were Iraq, Sierra Leone and Somalia. All three are suffering serious internal conflicts. But the nine others on the list are democracies – countries like India, Russia and Mexico, which have a functioning government and law enforcement institutions but where murders of journalists still go unpunished.

Coronel said that sometimes journalists are killed just for writing about low-level corruption. She cited the example of a journalist in the Philippines murdered for disclosing that a mayor had stolen steel beams from public construction sites to use for his own purposes. Such cases deter other local journalists from writing about corruption. And no arrests inspire more killings.

CPJ notes that there are other, more sophisticated ways to marginalise and silence the press, sometimes organised by government officials or in other cases by local crime networks. Intimidation and threats can have the same outcome in censoring reporters. As Simon said, the fact that a country is not on the list doesn&#39t mean that killings do not happen – it just means that they are not confirmed.

The aim of the Index list is to bring pressure from the international community. Convictions often happen when U.S. or other foreign reporters are murdered. But in the cases of local journalists, there is often no action from governments.

As Simon said, murder without consequence has a far reaching impact in spreading fear in society, preventing the free circulation of ideas and negatively impacting press freedom.

"We are calling for action, thorough investigations and vigorous prosecutions in all journalist homicides," he said.

 
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