Impunity stays a serious challenge for global press freedom

There is currently no real progress on the issue of impunity. Killings of journalists follow war and political instability, and Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and South Sudan top the list. This is tragic, though unsurprising. However, what is possibly even more alarming is the negative trend that in otherwise politically stable countries like Pakistan, the Philippines and Mexico impunity for violence against journalists is on the rise.

“The 2nd of November is the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. Impunity for violence and killings of media workers remain a serious threat to press freedom, the public’s access to information and ultimately to democracy. On this day, we call for strong collaborations to ensure justice for the journalists who are exposed to violence or even killed. Without accountability and justice for journalists, even the strongest democracy will wither in time – and we have to work together” says IMS director Jesper Højberg.

According to Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) newly published 2020 Global Impunity Index, 227 journalists were murdered in the past ten years, and in 83% of the cases, no perpetrators have been successfully prosecuted. Other types of crimes against journalists – like violence, arrests, detentions, torture, threats and online harassment – are other tools used to silence journalists all over the world, and many of them are on the rise.

Why is it important to address the issue of impunity?

The primary purpose of attacking journalists is preventing the truth from being published – effectively an extremely hardhanded way of imposing censorship. The subsequent effects are equally troubling as impunity for the attacks (just as the attacks themselves) creates a chilling effect among other journalists and media which again leads to self-censorship.

Censorship and impunity for violence against journalists therefore directly contributes to a less informed public debate; criminals, political leaders and other influential people not being held accountable for their actions; and an undermined trust in public institutions. Together, this creates an environment ripe for corruption, which essentially hinders democratic development.

And it doesn’t only happen in countries of conflict or war.


The most recent, worrying example of journalists being attacked with no persecution in Europe is in Belarus, following the August elections.

The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has registered 400 cases of violations of journalist’s rights from May 9 to October 12 with more than 230 detentions of journalists during this period. In more than 50 cases, the police used violence when detaining journalists. There were registered facts of torture after detention as well as damage or seizure of journalists’ equipment. Many journalists were held in custody and sentenced to short jail terms and fines. However, none of these facts led to initiation of criminal proceedings against those responsible for the violation of the rights of journalists.

“Over and over, I watch the footage of when I was detained, and I cannot believe this is all real. That this happened to me,” an anonymous Belarusian journalist tells. He was arrested while filming during a protest, forced into a police van and was held in prison for five days. “I was lucky. I’m alive. I was beaten less than others, and it feels awkward to complain. I feel ashamed telling that one person tortures another person.”

Attacking, detaining and torturing journalists who document the uprisings and the human rights violations taking place in the country is a violent attempt to control the information flow – both within Belarus and to the outside world.

IMS has supported local media partners by replacing confiscated and ruined equipment, providing safety gear and offering gender-sensitive psychological support and trauma counseling. On top of this, IMS has been calling for international solidarity and collaborative efforts to protect Belarusian journalist and promote accountability for those who have committed crimes against the media and the Belarusian media.  


Pakistan is another country on the rise when it comes to impunity for crimes against journalists. Over 140 journalists have been killed since 2000, according to Freedom Network, a national watchdog on media rights and IMS partner. In those two decades not one of those killings have seen a guilty conviction in the court system.

Another tendency in the country is organised abusive trolling by supporters of the ruling the ruling party in Pakistan, especially targeting women journalists – a group which is already exposed as they only make up 5% of all journalists in the country, get lower pay, hold fewer management positions and even risk their lives – two women have been killed for the mere act of pursuing a career in journalism in the past year, according to Freedom Network.

Recently, over a dozen of well-known women journalists issued a joint public statement detailing gross online abuse of a sexualized nature, including rape threats, often discernibly from ruling party supporters angry at their party being held accountable for its spectacularly poor governance record, a tanking economy and witch-hunt of the opposition parties. The women also cited specific examples of consistent and persistent online intimidation, harassment and use of crass language. The harassment leads to self-censorship, isolation and fear of their safety, and it poses a serious threat to democratic, equal public debate on important topics.

An example of this is Benazir Shah, who questioned the reliability of government’s reports on the development of Covid-19 in the country. As she retweeted a critical article on the topic, it unleashed a flood of online abuse led by government officials who attacked her professionalism and shared private photos to target her.

While several government representatives denied any organised harassment of women journalists and bloggers when they received the joint statement, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari issued a statement of solidarity and promised action against the worst offenders. Yet, weeks after, nothing happened. The group has now petitioned the Islamabad High Court to order the government into addressing their grievances and receive wide – and unprecedented – support from the media industry, civil society, rights defenders’ and the legal community as well as Parliament.

Local organisations like IMS partner Freedom Network also keep pushing to fight impunity and document all crimes against journalists in the country. Since 2013, when the federal government endorsed and approved the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, they have worked for the passing of a special law increasing the legal protection of journalists. Though steps have been taken in the right direction, the law has still not been passed.

Since 2014, IMS and Pakistani partners have worked to fight impunity in the country. One initative has been the establishment of the Pakistan Journalists Safety Coalition, grouping human rights commissions, journalists’ unions, rights activists and others to lobby for safety legislation. Another has been trainings of over 1,800 journalists – including men and women – on physical and digital safety and helped save the lives of over 90 journalists who received murder threats by way of relocation within the country through the Pakistan Journalist Safety Fund. In 2019, over 80 women rights activists trained during 2019 in digital safety including combating online surveillance and harassment for safer online civic activism.

We must act – together

IMS calls for all acts of violence against journalists must be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators must be prosecuted.

Following the proposal put forward by former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnés Callamard, IMS supports the formation of a standing Task Force of Special Rapporteurs that can undertake rapid action missions to respond to acts of violence, threats and that can prevent further acts of violence against journalists or human rights defenders. To ensure the widest possible reach, this instrument should be introduced within the UN system that currently do not have any institution or arrangement allowing for international and impartial investigation into such killings that can identify “state responsibilities and individual liabilities, as well as avenues for accountability”.

No actor can singlehandedly enforce change. The international community must act as a collective and demand action. In this process the international community is advised to seek guidance and input from relevant international CSO’s working with safety for journalists and justice and law reform.

The most recent publication in our Defending Journalism series, “Shared responsibility: Safeguarding press freedom in perilous times,” with lessons learned and new approaches to safety for journalists, emphasize the importance and develop on the possibilities of collaborative efforts.

Please find other IMS resources on safety for journalists and the issue of impunity for crimes against journalists here: