IPI SPECIAL REPORT: Impunity: A Global Scourge
Causes and Consequences of a Growing Trend
By: Scott Griffen, IPI Press Freedom Associate
23 November 2011 marks the two-year anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre, in which 32 journalists along with 26 civilians were slain in a terrible incidence of electoral violence. Today serves as a day of remembrance––but in light of the fact that the masterminds of this heinous crime have yet to be brought to justice, we are mindful of the challenge that impunity poses to press freedom and journalist safety not only in the Philippines but across the globe.
In the context of press freedom, impunity refers to the lack of legal consequences for those who kill, harass, or intimidate journalists. According to figures from the International Press Institute’s Death Watch, 94 journalists have been killed so far this year, keeping 2011 on track to be one of the deadliest years on record. Since 2000, over 900 journalists have died because of their work. In the vast majority of these cases, the perpetrators have gone unpunished.
Impunity is a particularly difficult evil to counter because it is self-reinforcing. When the killers of journalists go free, individuals or groups who wish to silence the media realise that violence against journalists may be committed over and over again without risk of arrest or imprisonment. Similarly, when governments fail to investigate journalistic killings, it sends a message that the lives of journalists and the work of the media are trivial.
Where such a cycle exists, one can speak of a ‘culture of impunity,’ which encompasses the idea that the causes of impunity are often embedded within societies at multiple levels and at multiple institutions. Rarely is it possible to identify a single root cause.
In certain countries, impunity for crimes committed against journalists represents a specific case of a wider problem of judicial inefficacy. In others, impunity can result from a culture that views the work of journalists with suspicion. In places that exhibit extreme generalised violence, journalists are sometimes caught in the crosshairs without being specifically targeted themselves. Far too often, however, they are singled out for their work. In both cases, the deaths of journalists go equally uninvestigated.
Weak and disinterested governments pose a major threat to ending impunity. In some of the world’s most dangerous areas for working journalists—Mindanao, northern Mexico, Baluchistan, to name a few—federal control has never been established or has since withdrawn. Government security forces in these areas that should be protecting media professionals are frequently beholden to private power players opposed to critical reporting.
Other governments simply do not view crimes against journalists as a priority for the justice system. But even if governments are willing to pursue cases, ineffectual legal systems and inadequate police investigations can stand in the way of a conviction.
Impunity affects press freedom in two principal ways. On the one hand, it perpetuates violence and can quite literally ‘kill the story.’ On the other, impunity leads to a climate of self-censorship. Journalists, fearing for their own lives or for the lives of their families, refrain from covering certain stories—often the ones that need to be told the most.
Self-censorship is especially pernicious because it is an invisible, often undetectable scourge. For this reason, the number of journalists killed in a particular country is often an inadequate barometer of the state of press freedom there. Indeed, certain countries exhibit a low number of journalists’ deaths precisely because of a high level of self-censorship.
Journalists often practice self-censorship because they have seen what has happened to colleagues for covering a particular topic. They can also decide to censor themselves after having been threatened or coerced—they choose to sit on a story rather than risk reprisal. Finally, journalists may also turn from topics that are viewed as taboo or untouchable by their particular societies.
One thing, however, is certain. Where a free press is threatened and investigative, independent reporting is absent, corruption and illegal activity are allowed to flourish. Misinformation, propaganda, and incitement trump deliberative, balanced, and factual storytelling. Governments of all stripes operate without accountability, while citizens living in democratic regimes risk allowing elected officials to commit terrible crimes in their name.
Ultimately, impunity results in the loss of truth. And without the truth, without access to accurate information about the world around them, the members of any society are fundamentally disempowered.
In this article, the International Press Institute (IPI) briefly surveys the functioning and particular consequences of impunity—as well as the differing levels of engagement by respective governments—in four countries: Mexico, Colombia, Russia, and the Philippines.
The situation in Mexico relative to impunity has grown increasingly grave. The rise in drug-related violence in northern Mexico has been accompanied by a growing number of attacks against journalists. According to the Organisation of American States Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, 20 journalists were murdered in Mexico between 1995 and 2005—an unacceptable statistic, to be sure. But over the next three years alone, that figure rose to 17. According to IPI’s Death Watch, 11 journalists were killed in Mexico in 2009, 12 in 2010, and 10 already so far this year. Taken together, those numbers give Mexico the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous places on earth for journalists.
The killings of journalists represent only a small fraction of the staggering number of murders in northern Mexico. In Ciudad Juárez alone, more than 3,000 homicides were recorded in 2010. Yet given the context, the campaign to silence the media in Mexico has particularly devastating consequences. In the absence of an investigative media, the drug cartels have expanded and consolidated their reign of terror, while corruption among elected officials—especially those with connections to the cartels—remains rife and underreported.
A recent survey of working journalists in Ciudad Juárez by the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez paints a chilling picture of media-related violence. 90% of those surveyed said they knew a colleague who had been a victim of violence. 70% said that they knew of cases of violence—including death threats, kidnappings, and robbery— against themselves or against colleagues that were not reported. Many stated that their papers or businesses were unwilling to report crime for fear of retribution. Indeed, 80% responded that, in their view, media outlets would have to change the way they report on criminal activity.
One of the survey’s most startling findings was that the majority of the journalists said that most credible threats came not directly from organised crime, but indirectly through government officials and police. In a separate focus group conducted by the university, journalists described an atmosphere of systemic abuse and threatening behavior coming from “law enforcement.” One participant noted, “What we can ask of the government is security; but how can they provide us security if the majority of police officials are in collusion with organised crime?”
In June of this year, the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) convened a conference in Puebla to discuss impunity and violence against the media in Mexico. Participants in the conference noted that while they viewed the work of journalists as “a crucial requisite of any democratic society,” Mexican law itself “does not define journalism or its practitioners” and extends no special legal protection or resources to journalists.
According to the conference summary document, the fact that crimes against journalists are not codified in Mexican federal law means that federal officials are unlikely to become involved in investigating journalistic killings, leaving that work to the state authorities. However, as the report notes, “It is as this local level that justice is most vulnerable—in many cases it is likely that the investigation of a crime against a journalist might not be in the interest of local authorities.” Mexican state and local governments often simply lack the will to bring the killers of journalists to justice.
Given this institutional failure, it is unsurprising that self-censorship has firmly taken root in Mexico. Participants in the conference said that both state governments and organised crime contributed to an environment in which journalists are forced to keep quiet. The conference report points firstly to public officials who “use the threat of removing funds as a tool of intimidation.” This phenomenon, the IAD report noted, is particularly problematic for rural media outlets that rely heavily on public funding.
The biggest culprit in self-censorship remains, however, the drug cartels. As the report observes, journalists are forced into an “untenable” position with respect to the cartels––covering their activities carries a major personal risk, while not doing so is to ignore a story of vital national and international interest. The threat of violence is clearly having an impact: “Fearing reprisals,” the report says, “journalists prefer to dispense with a byline while some editors refuse to cover stories on drug cartels altogether.”
Self-censorship often follows brutal acts of violence. Miguel Angel Villagomez Valle, owner and editor of La Noticia de Michoacán, was murdered in 2007 after his paper reported on a series of grenade attacks attributed to the La Familia cartel. Mr. Villagomez was shot seven times and his body left in an illegal garbage dump. Neither La Noticia nor any other paper in the state of Michoacán dared to investigate the murder of Mr. Villagomez and La Noticia ceased all reporting on organised crime. The paper’s editor, Francisco Rivera, said of the decision, “The readers protest because we do not bring out the facts, but we hope, or want to believe, that the readers … understand why we are not publishing them.” Mr. Villagomez’s murder remains unsolved.
The Puebla conference report notes that in 2006 the Mexican government created the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists (FEADP) in response to growing violence against the media. But the report heavily criticised FEADP for not having the authority to investigate or punish attacks on journalists. Participants said that the intervention of federal authorities was crucial and consequently recommended that the murder of journalists be made a federal crime.
In the meantime, the situation in Mexico shows little sign of improving. A growing number of Mexican journalists, fearing for their lives, have sought asylum in the United States. Unfortunately, as impunity reduces the number of journalists that are willing and able to pursue stories of corruption and illegal activity by the government and the drug cartels, the more entrenched the rule of violence becomes.
According to statistics from the Colombia Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), 138 journalists have been murdered in Colombia since 1977. In only 5 of those cases was the mastermind of the killing brought to justice. In 71 cases, no information pertaining to an investigation exists. An Inter-American Dialogue report further found that “of the 31 journalists murdered from 1998 to 2005 for reasons tied to their profession, only six cases have gone to trial.”
However, it should be noted that overall levels of violence against journalists in Colombia are down. According to FLIP, two journalists were reported murdered because of their work in 2010, compared to 10 in 2002. The number of recorded press freedom violations are also currently at their lowest level in decades. In this sense, Colombia provides a useful comparison to Mexico and the decrease in violence stands partly as a testament to the government’s commitment and its willingness to work together with civil society to fight impunity and protect journalists.
The report from an Inter-American Dialogue conference in Bogota on the topic of impunity in Colombia noted that, in contrast to Mexico, the Colombian Constitution (Article 74) grants journalists special protection and requires the government to actively protect journalists. Participants in the conference say that “threats and abuses against media members retain high priority” in the Attorney General’s Office. But it was noted that the Office has thus far declined to establish a special prosecutorial unit dedicated to investigating crimes against journalists.
Journalists in Colombia have also benefited from a government-run protection program for high-profile individuals, in place since 2000. According to the Inter-American Dialogue, the program has provided millions of dollars for relocation assistance, bulletproof vests, armed escorts, and armed cars. Candidates for protection are reviewed by a Risk Evaluation Committee, which approved 673 journalists for protection between 1999 and 2007. According to FLIP, 173 journalists benefitted from the protection in 2010.
However, participants in the conference said that implementation of the recommendations was spotty—in 2007, only 55% of journalists received what had been deemed necessary measures. FLIP’s 2010 report also expressed concern about last-minute changes to program ushered through by the departing government of President Alvaro Uribe last year. FLIP says that the amendments substantially reduced transportation and living subsidies for relocated journalists and their families.
A series of legislative and legal victories have improved Colombia’s capacity to prosecute crimes against journalists. In 2010, as FLIP noted in its annual report for that year, the Colombian Congress approved Bill 1426, which effectively expands the statue of limitations from 20 to 30 years in cases of genocide, kidnapping, and the murder of journalists and human-rights workers. Participants in the Inter-American Dialogue conference pointed to a series of Constitutional Court rulings that allowed civil-society groups to assist in criminal investigations.
Despite these encouraging signs, impunity remains a major threat to press freedom in Colombia. A recent study by Andiarios (the Colombian Newspaper Association) and the Inter-American Press Association tracked the legal process against the triggerman accused of murdering reporter Orlando Sierra in 2002. The report found that impunity in this case—the triggerman ultimately served just over five years before being released—was the culmination of ministerial oversight, prosecutorial errors, and inadequacies of the legal system. In another indication that impunity in Colombia is improving, however, authorities last year arrested two former congressmen suspected of masterminding Mr. Sierra’s killing.
Finally, self-censorship remains a major concern in Colombia. FLIP reported that self-censorship continues to have a “notorious impact” upon the exercise of journalism, particularly in rural areas of the country. The group cautions that the decline in direct attacks against journalists may be partly due to an increase in self-censorship.
Russia represents a peculiar case in relation to impunity, insofar as overall impunity is improving while impunity for crimes against journalists is not. Undoubtedly, Russia possesses a poor record of journalist safety: at least 86 journalists died due to their work in the period from 1993 to 2008. Russia is also home to one of the most infamous cases of impunity: the government’s failure to solve the 2006 murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building, allegedly in response to her reporting on Russian actions in the Caucasus.
In a sign of improvement, overall impunity in Russia has been on the decline, according to an International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report. In 1994, of 14 journalist deaths, only one was investigated. But 15 years later, the picture looks much different. Including Ms. Politkovskaya, 13 journalists were killed in 2006. By 2009, there had been nine trials in response to those killings.
However, those numbers include all killings of journalists, regardless of motive. In terms of the 34 journalists (following IFJ’s statistics) who were killed specifically for their work, the story is quite different and presents a troubling trend. None of the murders that took place in Chechnya or the Caucasus have been investigated. Concerning all other parts of Russia, 10 trials took place for 21 murders, resulting in five convictions and five acquittals. The IFJ report compares this to prosecutions for crimes against journalists that were not work-related. Those prosecutions resulted in 33 convictions and only one acquittal.
These numbers seem to indicate that while the rule of law has been strengthened overall in Russia, investigations into the deaths of journalists lag far behind. IPI believes that this discrepancy is due in part to the government’s aversion to criticism, particularly of its controversial actions in the Caucasus. IPI urges the Russian authorities to show more toleration toward independent voices and to work to uphold the integrity of the judicial process in all cases of journalistic killings.
There have been more than 200 journalists killed since 1993 in Russia, and in most cases, the killings are attributed to their work. In a cruel irony, the tendency on the part of investigators is to not attribute killings of journalists to work. As soon as a killing is attributed to a journalist's professional work, the slower the investigative process, according to IPI Vice-Chair and Chair of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism, Galina Sidorova.
"If the case is attributed to a reason not related to their work, then the investigation goes quickly and investigators try to find the perpetrators", she said. "But if they cannot attribute it to anything else, this has a terrible impact on the speed of the investigation."
"This is very bad for society, for civil society in Russia. Investigative journalism, which I represent, is very important for countries like Russia where civil society is only developing, and the situation with impunity leads us to the fact that less and less younger journalists dare to become investigative journalists. That is very bad. In the end this is very bad for society. It's kind of a vicious circle."
The statistics on impunity in the Philippines are, by any measure, shocking. According to statistics from IPI and the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR), since 1986 121 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines because of their profession. Out of those cases, there have been only 10 convictions, all for triggermen. Not once in 25 years has the mastermind of a journalist’s killing in the Philippines faced justice.
The root causes of impunity in the Philippines are varied but tend to be institutional. A Western diplomat in the Philippines told IPI that “the problem of impunity in the Philippines does not lie so much in the legal framework … but in its implementation or enforcement.” The diplomat identified three principal technical deficiencies in the Philippine criminal justice system that encourage impunity: a) poor investigatory practices “characterised by inadequate collection of forensic evidence” b) mismanagement of witnesses and c) an excessively convoluted trial process.
Sources estimate that only 5% of police officers are trained in how to conduct a proper criminal investigation. An International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) fact-finding mission to the Philippines found, for example, that the Maguindanao crime scene was “compromised from the beginning.” Vital evidence was not collected and police used a backhoe to dig the bodies out of the mass grave, thereby contaminating the crime scene. The mission summary also cited unconfirmed reports that police had burned and buried cell phones and camera equipment belonging to individuals traveling with the convoy.
A prominent editor and journalist with whom IPI spoke echoed these concerns and emphasised ‘police incompetence’ as a major obstacle to achieving criminal convictions. The editor observed that the police view arrest as the primary goal of an investigation. The police are not, he said, interested in putting together a strong case that can stand up at trial.
In addition, police and military corruption remains a significant problem in the Philippines. A major publisher told IPI in September, “Sorry to say that we have to clean up the police. Many are corrupt.” The police themselves are often involved in criminal activity, including the Maguindanao massacre––a number of law enforcement officials are among the nearly 200 individuals charged in the attack. According to a recent report by the Inquirer, nine members of the Philippine National Police remain at large in the case. The IFJ mission also found that the Philippine Armed Forces failed to respond to requests by the journalists to provide security for the convoy.
Witness mismanagement constitutes a particularly grave challenge. Many witnesses are, in the first place, reluctant to come forward, for fear of reprisal. A key prosecution witness in the Maguindanao trial, Suwaib Uphan, who himself participated in the massacre, was murdered this June before he could testify against the suspected masterminds. Human Rights Watch noted that Mr. Uphan did not receive the security he had requested in exchange for his testimony. Witnesses and the family members of victims are often bribed to keep them from participating in criminal trials and giving evidence. Several relatives of those killed in Maguindanao have already told the media that they had been offered a half million dollars each by the defense to withdraw from the case.
In the Philippines, however, even the strongest of cases can be derailed by extraordinarily long trials and byzantine rules of court. Cases can drag on for years; bringing them to a close is “ridiculously slow,” the publisher told IPI. Melinda Quintos de Jesus, Executive Director of CMFR, lamented “irrational delays” in the legal system, citing as an example the ability of defense attorneys to present primary evidence in bail hearings. The diplomat reference earlier told IPI that the lengthy trial process “affects the evaluation of material evidence, impairs the proper recount of testimonies, enhances the risk for witnesses, leads to victim’s acceptance of financial settlement, increases litigation costs, and instills a general fatigue.” The defense in the Maguindanao trial, aware of these eventualities, has already successfully employed a number of dilatory tactics.
Several other factors contribute to impunity in the Philippines. The lack of government control over the island of Mindanao, where the Maguindanao massacre occurred, prevents the rule of law from taking root there. Mindanao has been the site of a violent Islamic insurgency since the 1960s. Manila has instead outsourced security work to private, family-run militias, who are allowed to run shadow governments while pledging allegiance to politicians. This set-up was particularly apparent during the tenure of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who allegedly relied upon the powerful Ampatuan family––the clan accused of orchestrating the Maguindanao killings––to rig the vote for her in two presidential elections.
Finally, many observers note a lack of engagement on the part of the executive branch of government. President Benigno Aquino III, widely viewed as a reformer, has nevertheless shied away from taking bold public action to encourage reform in the judicial branch. A deputy presidential spokeswoman was quoted last month in the Philippine Star as saying that the Aquino administration “can only do so much” in speeding up the trial of the Ampatuans. Troublingly, when a reporter from the Star asked whether justice would be served before Mr. Aquino’s term ended in 2016, the spokeswoman responded that such questions were not for the government to answer.
Impunity constitutes the single gravest threat to world press freedom. Impunity is by no means limited to the countries discussed above. It is a global scourge, threatening the ability of the media to work freely in many countries. The culture of impunity is particularly strong in Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan, where enervated governments and a weakened rule of law severely hinder prosecutions of suspected killers of journalists.
IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said, “While the fight against impunity is an uphill one, it is nevertheless a challenge that must be faced head-on. Impunity creates a climate of fear in which journalists, who play an extraordinarily vital role in any society, are prevented from carrying out their work. Through self-censorship, impunity directly infringes on the right of individuals to information about the world they live in, a right that stands as a core element of press freedom.”
Ms. Bethel McKenzie continued, “IPI urges governments around the world to strengthen the rule of law and ensure that those who are responsible for the killing of journalists face justice. Additionally, IPI calls upon international organisations to increase pressure on member states who fail to prosecute crimes against journalists.”
Today, the two-year anniversary of the worst crime against the media in living memory represents an important opportunity to revitalise the campaign to end impunity for crimes committed against journalists. In the name of the victims of the Maguindanao massacre and all other murdered journalists across the globe, IPI calls for a commitment to cooperative action to ensure that justice is attained.