Upholding Rule of Law is essential to end impunity for crimes against journalists

States hold the ultimate responsibility to prevent crimes and to punish perpetrators through a court of law, which is essential for human rights and dignity, the rule of law and democracy, and sustainable development.

This was the theme of a panel discussion at the General Assembly on 3 November, under the theme: “Ending Impunity: Upholding the Rule of Law” was the title and focus of the event.

Participants included the diplomatic community, experts and civil society who gathered at UN Headquarters in New York to mark the first ever International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists (2 November). The meeting was co-organized by UNESCO and the Permanent Missions of Argentina, Austria, Costa Rica, France, Greece and Tunisia to the United Nations

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, through a video message, emphasised how a free and open press is part of the bedrock of democracy and development.

Yet in the last ten years, more than 700 journalists have been killed for simply doing their job, he regretted. And worst, nine out of ten cases go unpunished. As a result, criminals are emboldened.

Speaking on the Panel, Mr Maher Nasser, Head of the UN Department of Public Information, noted that most victims are local, covering local stories, and called for authorities worldwide to do better in ensuring that the perpetrators of attacks against journalists are held accountable.

Ambassador Michel Spinellis, Permanent Representative of Greece to the UN, stated that impunity is a threat to democracy. Speaking on behalf of the six co-sponsoring countries of the event, he underscored the recent actions taken by the UN Human Rights Council to address the lack of accountability for attacks against journalists.

Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Mr Getachew Engida, concentrated on what more can be done concretely to support Governments in ending impunity. He highlighted: creating dedicated investigation units for crimes against journalists and human rights defenders; strengthening special prosecution offices and independent commission; bolstering preventive as well as protection measures; and providing trainings to prosecutors and judiciary regarding safety of journalists.

Mr Engida also underlined the UN Plan of Action for Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, spearheaded by UNESCO, which seeks to support Governments in their efforts and is today the global reference to catalyse stronger action against impunity.

As another important concrete measure, the Deputy Director-General called on Member States to voluntarily provide updated information on the judicial investigation of the killings of journalists to UNESCO.

Arguing that combatting impunity must be a priority, Mr Joel Simon, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), cautioned that we must not mistake awareness for progress and must define success in quantifiable terms.

He called Member States to action and quoted findings from a special report by CPJ, issued in October 2014, entitled The Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity in the Killing of Journalists. The numbers of crimes against journalists must start decreasing instead of growing into record highs, as in the last few years, in order for this International Day to have a meaning at all, he said.

Dr Agnes Callamard, Director of Global Freedom of Expression & Information, and Special Adviser to the President of Columbia University, spoke from the perspective of Rule of Law. She affirmed that rule ‘by’ law should not trump the rule ‘of’ law, and that ‘rule of law’ must serve the interest of justice.

A key component of combatting impunity is embedding the rule of law and responsible authorities into response and precautionary mechanisms. She said Columbia University will launch an award prize in March 2015 in recognition of legal practitioners who have strived for rulings in favour of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

Ms Nadia Bilbassy-Charters, a foreign correspondent with Al-Arabiya News Channel and member of the Board of Directors of International Women’s Media Foundation, gave a strong personal account of the situation faced by journalists covering difficult issues. Non-state actors are an increasing threat, she warned, and elaborated on the challenges this poses to journalists.

During discussion, a connection was drawn with the new agenda for sustainable development in the post-2015. Participants acknowledged the importance of freedom of expression for sustainable development, and recognized that freedom of expression and its corollary media freedom, including the safety of journalists and ending impunity, are important indicators for the future goals.

Since freedom of expression, the safety of journalists and ending impunity have not been included as such in the proposed agenda to follow 2015, an important and actionable objective was identified for Member States to tackle before the next iteration of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists.