End impunity for crimes against journalists | Daily News


End impunity for crimes against journalists

Journalism has become one of the most dangerous professions in the world today. Nearly 100 journalists and media workers were killed worldwide last year alone and more than 1,000 journalists have been killed in the past 12 years. One of the basic tenets of journalism is that “no story is worth your life” but journalists often work in dangerous environments or attract the ire of politicians incensed by their work to expose corruption.

These figures do not include the many more journalists, who on a daily basis suffer from other attacks, including torture, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations. Governments and authorities may also use legal systems to interrogate and imprison journalists who do not toe the line, so to speak. Some Governments also withhold access to places and events for journalists and impose other restrictions on their work such as censorship. Furthermore, there are specific risks faced by women journalists, including sexist and sexual attacks.

But the saddest facet of these statistics is that in nine out of ten cases the killers or perpetrators of crimes against journalists go unpunished. In other words, only one in ten cases committed against journalists and media workers over the past decade has led to a conviction. This impunity emboldens the perpetrators of the crimes and at the same time has a chilling effect on the whole society including journalists. Perpetrators of crimes against journalists are emboldened when they realize they can repeatedly attack their targets without ever facing justice. Impunity breeds impunity and feeds into a vicious cycle.

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed November 2 (today) as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’. The relevant resolution urges Member States to implement definite measures countering the present culture of impunity. The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of two French journalists in Mali on November 2, 2013.

This landmark resolution condemns all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers. It also urges Member States to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability, bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media workers, and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies. It further calls upon States to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work impartially, independently and without undue interference.

Here in Sri Lanka, there have been several high-profile cases of assassinations and attacks against journalists and media institutions especially from 2005 to 2014. Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed in broad daylight 10 years ago while journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was subjected to an enforced disappearance. Popular Tamil journalist Dharmeratnam “Taraki” Sivaram suffered a similar fate four years earlier. Journalists Poddala Jayantha, Upali Tennakoon and Keith Noyahr suffered physical assaults. The infamous “white van” became a symbol that represented State tyranny against journalists who dared to expose the truth. Many other journalists who were in the crosshairs of powerful personalities fled abroad fearing for their lives.

Little headway has been made in terms of convictions for these crimes, though the involvement of certain military units in abductions and killings of journalists has been proved with ample evidence by the investigating agencies. Unfortunately, there is an attempt by the Opposition to misinform the masses by saying that some of the military operatives now in custody over these cases have been jailed for their role in combat against the LTTE. This is, of course, a brazen lie calculated to generate public wrath against the incumbent Government. No member of the Armed Services, Police or Civil Defence Force has even been questioned, leave alone arrested, for their role in the war.

There is even a sinister attempt to justify the extra-judicial actions against these journalists on the basis that they were “LTTE sympathizers”. If that was indeed the case, normal legal action should have been followed to deal with them, not summary executions or enforced disappearances. One candidate has even promised to release all of the personnel now in custody over the incidents the very next day should he win the election on November 16, which is a direct attack on the Judiciary which handed over these sentences and the investigating agencies that did the legwork amidst many threats.

Instead, the President that assumes power next month should ensure that the investigations into these attacks on journalists are expedited and the culprits punished. That is the only way to show the world that there is no impunity or forgiveness for crimes against journalists in this country. Sri Lanka has made remarkable gains in the world press freedom indices in the last four years. No journalists or media workers have been threatened or abducted. The Right to Information laws have been passed. The media is free to criticize the President, the Prime Minister and other Government figures without fearing any repercussions of any kind. These gains should not be reversed for short-term political expediency.

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