Ac­count­abil­ity dies when jour­nal­ists are killed

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Robert Ma­honey

What does it cost to si­lence a muck­rak­ing re­porter? In the Philip­pines in 2011, of­fi­cials paid just $250 to hire a jour­nal­ist-slay­ing gun­man. In Slo­vakia in Fe­bru­ary 2018, Ján Ku­ciak and his fi­ancée were killed for about $80 000.

For cor­rupt politi­cians and crime bosses, nei­ther sum is sig­nif­i­cant. The cost to democ­racy, how­ever, is im­mea­sur­able.

To­day more jour­nal­ists are mur­dered be­cause of their re­port­ing than die in war zones. Since 1992, when the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists (CPJ) be­gan com­pil­ing data, 1 324 jour­nal­ists have been killed on the job, and 849 were ex­e­cuted for their work. But in nearly 90% of these mur­ders, the peo­ple who or­dered the at­tacks es­caped jus­tice. On the rare oc­ca­sion there was a full in­ves­ti­ga­tion, only lowlevel as­so­ci­ates were en­snared. The big fish usu­ally got away.

The prob­lem is not con­fined to coun­tries in the Global South. Oc­to­ber 16 marked one year since Daphne Caru­ana Gal­izia, a Mal­tese jour­nal­ist in­ves­ti­gat­ing cor­rup­tion, was killed by a car bomb. Three men have been charged but the mas­ter­minds re­main at large.

Sim­i­larly, Slo­vakia (like Malta a Euro­pean Union coun­try) has failed to de­liver jus­tice in the bru­tal mur­der of Ku­ciak and his fi­ancée at their home near Bratislava. Po­lice made ar­rests but not all the or­gan­is­ers have been found.

And, although Saudi Ara­bia has ad­mit­ted that jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi was killed in the king­dom’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is un­likely to lead to the prose­cu­tion of all those re­spon­si­ble.

Im­punity in such cases is a can­cer on ac­count­abil­ity and democ­racy. The con­se­quences can be seen in Mex­ico, where car­tel crime goes un­re­ported in much of the coun­try. Cartellinked killings have had the in­tended ef­fect of si­lenc­ing many re­porters.

In 2013, the United Na­tions made Novem­ber 2 the an­nual In­ter­na­tional Day to End Im­punity for Crimes Against Jour­nal­ists. My or­gan­i­sa­tion, the CPJ, sup­ports this ef­fort with our yearly Global Im­punity In­dex, which shows that democ­ra­cies such as Mex­ico, Brazil, In­dia, Pak­istan and the Philip­pines con­sis­tently fail to con­vict jour­nal­ists’ killers.

Democ­racy and a free press are mu­tu­ally de­pen­dent, and when re­porters are si­lenced, em­bez­zle­ment, ex­tor­tion and en­vi­ron­men­tal crimes in­crease. And though many are fight­ing back, they could use some help.

A good weapon in the strug­gle against im­punity is sanc­tions. Since 2016, the Global Mag­nit­sky Hu­man Rights Ac­count­abil­ity Act in the United States has autho­rised the US pres­i­dent to im­pose visa bans and freeze the as­sets of for­eign na­tion­als sus­pected of gross hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. Canada en­acted its own Mag­nit­sky law in Oc­to­ber 2017, and Es­to­nia, Lithua­nia, Latvia and the United King­dom have in­tro­duced sim­i­lar mea­sures.

But en­act­ing a law is not the same as us­ing it. Ex­cept for a few in­di­vid­u­als im­pli­cated in the 2004 mur­der of Forbes ed­i­tor Paul Kleb­nikov in Moscow, Mag­nit­sky-type laws have not been widely de­ployed in the de­fense of jour­nal­ists. Gov­ern­ments com­mit­ted to up­hold­ing democ­racy should use the tools at their dis­posal to pro­tect those who risk their lives for free speech.

Press free­dom or­gan­i­sa­tions can also do more. In Mex­ico, for ex­am­ple, the CPJ worked with re­porters and ad­vo­cacy groups to lobby the na­tional gov­ern­ment to treat at­tacks on jour­nal­ists as fed­eral of­fences — and to by­pass state-level law en­force­ment agen­cies when cor­rup­tion is sus­pected. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­sponded by cre­at­ing a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor for crimes against free­dom of ex­pres­sion.

Still, a lack of fund­ing for the pros­e­cu­tor’s of­fice is threat­en­ing to re­verse its mod­est gains. The in­com­ing gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent-elect An­drés Manuel López Obrador can tackle im­punity, but only if the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor is fully re­sourced.

As gov­ern­ments dither, jour­nal­ists are de­fend­ing them­selves the best way they know how: with jour­nal­ism. The col­lec­tive re­sponse to the deaths of Caru­ana Gal­izia and Ku­ciak il­lus­trates this well. Both were mem­bers of in­ter­na­tional in­ves­tiga­tive net­works and, to­day, those groups are fol­low­ing the leads and fin­ish­ing the sto­ries in­ter­rupted by mur­der.

The mes­sage to would-be as­sas­sins is sim­ple: killing re­porters will not kill the story. — © Project Syn­di­cate

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