Patterns and principles behind impunity and the power of robust investigations

To mark this year’s International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, IMS highlights the delicate democratic conditions that can lend to a climate of impunity and the instrumental role of prosecutorial services to end the cycle of violence against media professionals.

IMS holds that no single tool improves the increasingly hostile conditions in which many journalists and media workers operate. Rather, a multi-pronged, interconnected and gender-sensitive approach is required that works to prevent the commission of crimes against journalists, protect journalists in the case crimes are committed and readily prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against journalists to hold them to account.

As outlined in IMS’ 2020 Defending Journalism series publication,Prospect for change in The Gambia: Collaborative support to combat impunity, we know that everyone has a role to play when combating impunity. Efforts to bolster the safety of journalists around the globe not only entail bringing national governments on board with the media sector in any particular country, but also the willingness of civil society, law enforcement and public prosecutors and an overall public support for the value of good public interest journalism.

As the rate of impunity remains unacceptably high for another year on record, IMS joins UNESCO in homing in on the role of police and public prosecutors to enable an environment for media professionals to carry out their work. We call for robust investigation and prosecution of crimes against journalists because leaving one murder unpunished can silence an entire community of journalists. One cannot kill without consequences.

We furthermore recognise that crimes against journalists are not isolated incidents, but rather they fit into a wider pattern of intimidation. As murders of journalists and other crimes against them in reprisal for their work have continued unabated and without answer, the systemic nature of the problem becomes increasingly clear. There are circumstances relating to investigations and prosecutions of crimes that reveal a global pattern of critical voices being silenced, and IMS stands committed to working with the range of stakeholders in its network combat impunity up through the highest ranks of power.

IMS cites the disregard of threats, harassment or intimidation made on a journalist’s life prior to their murder as the leading circumstance that can provide for a path to impunity in its third-party submission for the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists that will take place in The Hague on 2 November 2021 (download the submission here). Organised by fellow independent press free freedom support institutions, the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists will convene to facilitate accountability for this pattern of actions and omissions by States that uphold impunity and hopefully create new leverage to mobilise States to address impunity for murders of journalists. 

Together, we are building a more enabling environment for journalists and media workers by strengthening coordination between national and global responses to impunity. We know the road is long and precariously peppered with obstacles within weak investigatory and prosecutorial frameworks, but we persist because we believe a free press is the bedrock of strong democracy. In a world where corruption is rife, the least we can do is defend the journalists who have dedicated their lives to holding truth to power and paid the ultimate price.