Record Imprisonments, Impunity for Murders: Can Press Freedom Watchdogs Even Keep Up?

Record Imprisonments, Impunity for Murders: Can Press Freedom Watchdogs Even Keep Up?

. 10 min read

Over twenty years ago, Daniel Pearl, The Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent, was kidnapped, then beheaded by jihadist militants in Pakistan. His targeting seemed to mark a new trend. Months later, in Brazil, a TV Globo correspondent, Tim Lopes, was abducted and decapitated in a copycat murder. But while these cases made headlines for their savagery, the murders of journalists worldwide were already commonplace.

For decades, nearly three out of four journalists killed around the world did not step on a landmine, die in an air strike or a terrorist bombing, or fall victim to a firefight or a violent protest. Instead, no less than 72 percent of all 831 journalists killed on the job from 1992 through the aughts, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were murdered outright as crimes that stand as homicides, as I wrote here for the HIR in 2010.

Cases include Uğur Mumcu in Turkey, Cumhuriyet’s investigative correspondent killed by a bomb planted in his car in front of his house in Ankara; Atwar Bahjat in Iraq, Al-Arabiya’s correspondent tortured and murdered with her cameraman in Samarra; and Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, Novaya Gazeta’s investigative correspondent, who was shot dead in her apartment building’s elevator in Moscow. More recently, in Mexico, the investigative journalist and editor Javier Valdez Cárdenez was shot dead in broad daylight in downtown Sinaloa.

Each of these incidents was undeniably a homicide. But in each case, who did it is another question. Unfortunately, today, nearly four out of five journalist murders worldwide remain unprosecuted, lending plausible deniability to the perpetrators and sending a message of fear to their families and surviving colleagues.

In 2009 in Oslo, Joel Simon, then executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said press freedom groups must together “fight impunity for the killers of journalists,” as it poses “the greatest threat to press freedom around the world.”

But the priorities of press freedom groups seem to have since changed, and today, even a top watchdog like CPJ is giving the murders of journalists less attention.

“I wouldn’t say there’s been a shift,” said CPJ executive director Jodie Ginsberg, who replaced Simon in January 2022, at a recent George Washington University forum in Washington, D.C. “But if something isn’t working, why continue doing it?”

Campaign Against Impunity

CPJ built a comprehensive and transparent database of journalist killings launched during its 25th anniversary. (Full disclosure: I was then CPJ’s Washington Representative and Journalist Security Coordinator, and oversaw its construction.)

The effort produced some unexpected results. Besides establishing that almost three times as many journalists had been targeted for murder than killed in combat or other dangerous circumstances, CPJ’s data showed that the murderers got away with it in nearly nine out of ten cases. Moreover, over 90 percent of the journalists who were murdered were local newsmen and women. Many if not most were threatened before being murdered.

A year later, CPJ launched the Campaign Against Impunity funded by the Knight Foundation. Other press freedom groups joined or supported the effort including the Inter American Press Association, which led the first Project Against Impunity in Latin America.

The murders of journalists worldwide have been concentrated in little more than a dozen nations, including both authoritarian and pluralistic regimes. The CPJ data further revealed that more journalists had been murdered by government officials or allied paramilitary groups than by terrorists and other insurgents.

As part of the campaign, press freedom advocates brought their case to officials in charge of good governance standards at multilateral bodies like the World Bank, and encouraged them to consider unsolved journalist murders when deciding whether to offer an abusive nation a loan. To give the effort more teeth, CPJ launched a Global Impunity Index in 2008. It divided the population of a given country (since determining who is a journalist even that early in the digital age was already all but impossible) by the number of unsolved journalist murders in the same nation over the past 10 years.

Many governments quietly balked at the idea that they were responsible for investigating what in too many of their nations was an ongoing spate of unsolved journalist murders, especially of journalists critical of the government. Diplomats from many of the same nations pressured multilateral organizations to not even use the term “murder” when it came to homicides of journalists.

In 2014, the chief of the Austria mission to the UN Human Rights Council, Ambassador Thomas Hajnoczi, invited me to join a panel he was chairing in Geneva before the UN Member States. Stipulating that I was speaking for myself, I said openly what others have said in private:

“[L]ast year’s UN report on the safety of journalists seems, well, timid. The report raised the notion of ‘impunity for attacks against journalists.’ But without being more specific, even while adding that it ‘is a serious and pervasive problem,’ the report goes on to note that ‘there is near total impunity in cases of violations of the right to life of journalists,’ using legal language instead of a clearer term like murder.”

The UN council’s language makes more sense if you consider that nearly half of the member states had failed to respond to requests for voluntary information on judicial inquiries on journalist cases in their respective nations, as both myself and Ms. Navi Pallay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted.

The number of journalists murdered have since dropped both in aggregate and as a percentage of other categories of killings of journalists. Unfortunately, this is not a positive trend. The decline has been largely due to wars in nations from Syria to Ukraine where government or occupying forces, respectively, have used even more indiscriminate tactics – more so than in many prior wars – against civilians including journalists, killing more than before.

Underreporting Murders By More Than Half

The rate of impunity for murdering journalists worldwide has dropped from 87 to 79 percent over the past 12 years, as CPJ figures discerned in real time from the database show. This means that at least some justice has been achieved in eight percentage points more cases where journalists were murdered over their work, even if it’s only the triggerman and not the superior who ordered the crime who was prosecuted.

You would think CPJ would want to celebrate this achievement, as it represents a significant increase in prosecution and a modest, but significant success for what over more than a decade and a half was its signature campaign. But the New York watchdog has yet to say a word about it, as if it doesn’t want anyone to take too hard a look at its data.

Instead, in recent years, CPJ has returned to using less precise language like “killings” to refer to murders whenever discussing them in the aggregate. It’s the kind of euphemism preferred by despots like the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. It’s also the kind of lexicon favored by UN and other multilateral diplomats, mindful of offending member states.

Part of the change was the result of new challenges facing advocacy. The withdrawal of U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban to power there after a 20-year hiatus drove a massive effort to evacuate Afghani journalists who would likely be at risk under Taliban rule.

Other global crises consumed even more energy. Since the start of the 2020s, the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rise of authoritarian governments around the world has led to the imprisonment of more journalists. Last year there were 363 behind bars worldwide, according to CPJ, or more than any time in over 30 years. Iran jails the most journalists today, followed by China, Myanmar, Turkey, and Belarus.

Today the number of journalist murders and the rate of impunity are both on display in CPJ’s annual Global Impunity Index, but only for the ten or more nations with the most unsolved journalist murders over the past decade. A bold red header at the top of the index reads “All journalists murdered for their work,” and it links to a page on the database showing 939 murders of journalists worldwide since 1992. One click from there brings up another page, if you can find it, showing there were actually 2,071 murders of journalists over the same years.

The seeming incongruity has to do with both stretched resources, and with how to handle a long-time flaw in CPJ’s journalists-killed database. The watchdog has long divided journalist murders into two categories. “Confirmed” means researchers have concluded the journalist was likely murdered over their work, and they include it both in the database and to measure impunity. “Unconfirmed” means CPJ is not sure of the motive and may never be, meaning the murder counts neither in the database nor to measure impunity.

For example, when a journalist is murdered: CPJ has long tried to determine the motives for homicides. Was it over the journalist’s work? Or was it something unrelated to their job like being the victim of an armed robbery, or a shady business deal, or having a liaison with someone’s spouse? The number of journalists shown to have been murdered over non-work issues has long been tiny, in fact, but within this blue-ribbon watchdog, the fear of being wrong on an individual case seems to overshadow the need to get as much as possible right.

CPJ staffers, focused on challenges in various nations including rising imprisonments and evacuations, have long struggled to update the data. Their line of inquiry has relied less on analyzing known facts than asking people who knew the journalist if they believe they were targeted over their reporting. But in a digital age where security breaches have only grown more common, many people no longer wish to be contacted. As a result, more than half of the murder cases end up in what might be called the limbo of the unconfirmed.

Jodie Ginsberg assumed CPJ’s helm early last year, and she has proven to be a nimble and capable leader. By the time she took over, the journalists-killed database had already grown into an albatross. In recent years, the “motive unconfirmed” cases had proliferated so much as to make the aggregate murdered figures underrepresented by more than 50 percent over the past decade in countries like Mexico and around the globe.

But deciding what to do about the database would take time and ample discussion. In the meantime, CPJ’s muddling of the distinction between murders and other killings related to a journalist’s work provides the world with less insight into the threats facing journalists, and the information needed to curb them.

“CPJ has confirmed that at least 41 journalists and media workers were killed in direct connection with their work, and is investigating the motives for the killings of 26 others to determine whether they were work-related,” reads its report on journalists killed in 2022. But how many of these journalists were murdered outright, as opposed to being killed in combat or other dangerous circumstances, remained unclear.

In the same report, CPJ made a notable break with prior advocacy, and finally stopped reporting how many journalists were murdered versus killed in other circumstances around the globe. Instead of CPJ, for the first time in 16 years since the Campaign Against Impunity began, it was the Vienna-based International Press Institute which filled the gap, reporting that 39 journalists were murdered out of a total of 66 killed in 2022. But even these numbers were low.

If you add up CPJ’s figures of both “confirmed” and “unconfirmed,” they show 45 out of the 67 journalists killed last year were murdered, according to data on CPJ’s website. Yet the watchdog failed to say so. Unsurprisingly, following CPJ’s lead, not even one news outlet reported that more than two out of three of all journalists killed around the world in 2022 were murdered.

CPJ has continued to publish its annual Global Impunity Index. Somalia, Syria, South Sudan, Iraq, Mexico, Philippines, Myanmar, Brazil, Pakistan, and India made the list in 2022, along with rates of impunity in these nations for the murders of journalists whom CPJ has concluded were targeted over their work, and how many of them have been brought to some measure of justice within ten years. CPJ’s impunity index highlights the unsolved murders of journalists in the worst nations, but its annual report on the killings of journalists, that now obscures which killings are murders, gets far more press every year.

The culling of cold-blooded murders by more than half from the killed database no doubt makes it more manageable. The rate of impunity calculated from this smaller pool may well mirror the impunity for murders at large. But no one will ever know as CPJ only calculates it for “confirmed” murders. What seems more certain is that the ongoing use of imprecise language, unverifiable figures and esoteric taxonomy is already generating the kind of confusion that only weakens advocacy and undermines its goals, while challenging the watchdog’s credibility over time.

One legacy of the Campaign Against Impunity is a series of ground investigations into the murders of journalists in different nations going back over a decade led by Free Press Unlimited. (Full disclosure: I served as a security advisor to FPU during these investigations.) These findings have helped shine a light on the murders of journalists like Lasantha Wickrematunge, who foretold his own death in a piece he wrote days before his murder in Sri Lanka. Or Nabil Al-Sharbaji, who died in custody in a government prison in Syria. Or the investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered by a bomb planted in her car in Malta. FPU presented its findings in these cases to the People’s Tribunal, a Vietnam War-era private body in the Hague.

Right the First Time

This year, Joel Simon became the founding director of the Journalism Protection Initiative at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. In a recent essay in Columbia Journalism Review, he makes the case that it is time for advocates to shift from focusing on the individual right of free expression that has long guided press freedom advocacy, to concentrate instead on the collective benefit of keeping people informed. This shift from focusing on individual rights to a public interest framework, Simon went on, should involve collaborating with universities to expand research and education.

It might be time to find a new home for CPJ’s troubled, but invaluable journalists-killed database, based on the notion that CPJ and Simon were right the first time. Imprisonment of journalists is a heinous practice. But silencing them through the finality of murder is worse.

Take Jeff German in the United States. He was stabbed to death last year outside his home in Las Vegas. A local county official lost his reelection bid after German’s critical reports, and he now faces trial for his murder.

This is how justice should work, but rarely does in most nations. Holding perpetrators accountable is the only way to curb impunity for murdering journalists. It’s a matter of life and death abroad and at home, and a watchdog’s obscuring of how many were targeted for murder doesn’t help.

Frank Smyth is the former Washington Representative and Senior Advisor for Journalist Security at CPJ, and the founder and CEO of Global Journalist Security, a provider of hostile environments and emergency first aid training.