Agnés Callamard: “Journalists should receive resounding support every day”

In the foreword of our recent publication “Shared responsibility: Safeguarding press freedom in perilous times”, Agnés Callamard accentuates the importance of strong, collaborative support to combat impunity and protect journalists.

by Agnés Callamard – United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University

(Read the full publication here.)

In the aftermath of my investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, journalists, officials, experts, friends and colleagues all had the same question: “What does justice for the murder of Mr. Khashoggi look like? What does justice for the killing of a journalist mean?”

Of course, justice should mean that the killers and those who commanded them face prosecution, judgment and sentencing. But the grave implications of such a crime extend far beyond the authority of the courtroom alone. Other pathways must be pursued, including those that address the systemic problems and limitations highlighted by specific targeted killings and the impunity attached to them. Justice should also mean that we as an international community learn and do all we can to prevent and stop future executions of journalists or other acts of violence against them. Journalists are targeted to be silenced, to shield those in power from their critical reporting, to prevent societies from being informed, to ensure they are disinformed.

We see these motives behind the murders, death threats, bullying and stigmatisation, sexual harassment, legal persecution and multiple instances of arbitrary imprisonment.

We also see these motives in the self-censorship that takes hold of the media.

And we see them perhaps most of all in the impunity that shields the aggressors from journalists.

Our responses to this targeting must address not only the specificities of the act of violence, but also and most importantly the systems and institutions that allow these acts and impunity to prevail.

During my 25-plus years of work on human rights, time and time again I have witnessed a singular and toxic absence in efforts to embed the rule of law, which is the failure to ensure a working police system. Impunity begins a few hours after an attack, with the victims or their families unable to register the attacks committed against them and with the police unable or unwilling to initiate a proper investigation. We see such systemic failures in the absence of scientific investigation, the lack of forensic skills and resources, in eyewitnesses not being interviewed, and in the unwillingness to consider the work and reporting of the journalists as motivations for their targeting. We see such failures in the reluctance to investigate the chain of command and identify the masterminds, and crucially, in the many examples of political interference.

Responding to the killing of journalists means being prepared to scrutinise investigations, demanding that those in the lead account for what they do or not do, and that those who may interfere are named and prosecuted for such obstruction as a human rights violation too.

Given that investigation and prosecution take place primarily at the national level, the failings of policing and justice systems must be addressed by and within states. However, the regional and international inter-governmental systems also have a role to play, and an important one.

Nowhere is this role clearer than in the responses to the execution of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered on 16 October 2017, which saw four in- ter-governmental institutions taking up the challenge. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe appointed a Council of Europe special rapporteur to assess the murder investigation and the rule of law in Malta.

Simultaneously, it also requested legal opinions from the Venice Commission (the European Commission for Democracy through Law) on Malta’s constitutional arrangements and separation of powers, and from the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) on the prevention of corruption in Malta. All entities issued damning reports, forcing the European political institutions to put additional pres- sure on the Maltese government. In November 2019, a delegation of Members of the European Parliament undertook an official mission to Malta and found that the Prime Minister “pose[d] a risk, real or perceived, to [the] integrity of the murder investigation”.1 Progress on the case, some two years after the horrific murder, can be largely attributed to the active support of European inter-governmental institutions, along with the continuing pressure from Daphne Caruana’s family and national and international civil society.

“Responding to the killing of journalists means being prepared to scrutinise investigations.”

In my own investigation into the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, I benefited from the support of many within civil society and the media, but little from within the UN. The international response has been largely confined to statements of condemnation and ineffective individualised targeted sanctions from a handful of countries.

My mandate as UN Special Rapporteur allowed me to initiate the investigation. No other UN institutions or Member States showed willingness to step in, either to demand an official inquiry, undertake one or formally offer to support mine. I had recommended a follow-up investigation into the chain of command and individual liabilities, including at the highest levels of the state, but that too, the UN Secretary General or other institutions or agencies were unwilling to do.

Still, my investigation into the extrajudicial execution of Mr. Khashoggi has shown the potentials of one symbolic case, not only in terms of contributing to truth-telling and pointing to states’ human rights responsibilities, but also in highlighting the potentials and limitations of the inter-governmental system.

With regard to potentials, Special Procedures, for instance, has the power to send urgent appeals to states where journalists and others are under threat. Such methods could be enhanced for the purpose of strengthening the protection of journalists and better ad- dressing the issue of impunity. This is why I have recommended that we organise a Task Force of Special Rapporteurs to undertake rapid action missions to respond to threats and prevent further acts of violence against journalists or human rights defenders. I have also committed to undertake an international review of best practices with a view to develop a UN Protocol for the investigation of and response to threats.

With regard to the limitations, my investigation has shown that we do not have any international institutions or institutional arrangement at the UN level allowing for international impartial investigation into the killings of journalists and human rights defenders, to identify both state responsibilities and individual liabilities, as well as avenues for accountability. This is why I have recommended the establishment of such a UN standing instrument, building on existing models tested over the years.

We are not starting from the ground up. There is a wide range of experiences to learn from and improve upon, many of which are detailed in this volume. There is also increasingly powerful jurisprudence that underpins safety of journalists. National and re- gional courts have issued encouraging rulings as documented by Columbia Global Freedom of Expression — for instance, in Paraguay v. Vilmar Acosta, when a collegiate court in Paraguay sentenced Vilmar Acosta, former mayor of the city of Ypehu, to 39 years of imprisonment for ordering the killing of the journalist Pablo Medina. In Mazepa v. Russia, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian government failed to conduct an effective investigation into the murder of renowned investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya because it chose to focus on a single line of enquiry and did not explore allegations that the Federal Security Services (FSB) or Chechen officials were involved in the murder.

Ultimately though, we too need to be courageous. If journalists can stand up to violence, threats, bullying and imprisonment for the purpose of informing us, the least we can do is stand up for them, and demand that their killers do not get away with silencing their voices. Representatives of governments and inter-governmental institutions must accompany their public statements supporting media freedom and decrying attacks with concrete actions and policies. If they fail to do so, their messages are largely muted. The protection of media freedom is not something that should be turned on and off to fit the occasion. Journalists live with threats every day. They should receive resounding support no less often.

Download “Shared responsibility: Safeguarding press freedom in perilous times” below.