On Wednesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists released its fourth annual Impunity Index—a ranking of countries determined by the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the population. Counting murders from January 2001 to December 2010, Iraq was ranked at the top of the Index for the fourth straight year, with ninety-three murders unsolved. Somalia came next, followed by the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Afghanistan, Nepal, Mexico, Russia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, and India. Only countries with five or more unsolved murders were counted.
CPJ executive director Joel Simon presented the Index this week to the ninety-five members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange at their annual general meeting in Beirut. During the IFEX meeting, it was decided that November 23 would be deemed an “International Day to End Impunity,” a date that marks the second anniversary of the massacre of thirty-two journalists, among fifty-seven people, in the Maguindanao province of the Philippines. The lack of any convictions for that crime—the worst single attack on journalists in recorded history—has ensured the Philippines its high Impunity Index ranking. CJR assistant editor Joel Meares spoke to Simon from his Beirut hotel room about CPJ’s Index and the struggle to convince governments that murderers of journalists must be held accountable. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
CPJ has a rolling measure of violence against journalists. What’s the specific value of measuring the extent to which these crimes are prosecuted in the Impunity Index?
One of the things that we’ve found in our advocacy is that when you go and meet with government officials and show these lists of how many journalists were killed in a particular country, the government’s thought is that their fates are already sealed. They think, “Well, we’re already the most murderous country, what are we going to do?” So we tried to come up with a way of measuring, not only the level of violence, but also tracking the government’s response. The Impunity Index does both things. We release different statistics that measure just the level of violence—this really measures the government’s response to that violence.
We’re trying to incentivize action. We’re trying to go to the governments and say, “Look, there’s a history of violence in your country against journalists that’s having a devastating effect on the level of press freedom and the level of discourse in your country. And there’s something you can do about it. You can solve these crimes and as you solve them your ranking on this Index will improve.” That was the goal.
Does that presuppose that you’ve established a strong connection with these countries and their leaders, and a reputation that you’re an organization that demands attention and is able to draw attention to these issues in a significant way?
Well, I like to think so. But the thing about this list is that not every country on it is vulnerable to that kind of argument. You don’t make that argument in Somalia, or even really Iraq at this point—though we’re starting to. There are many countries on this list with which we have relationships and dialogues, even at the level of the president and senior government officials. The argument we’re making is: Do you really want to be on a list with Somalia and Iraq and countries that are recognized as having extremely high levels of violence? Do you really want to be in their company? And some governments are very susceptible to those kinds of discussions and that kind of pressure.
Just recently we had a meeting with the president of Pakistan. We presented him with a list of fifteen unsolved murders and spoke specifically about what the government of Pakistan can do about the issue of impunity. In the past, we’ve met with the president of Mexico, with the president of the Philippines. We’ve met with high officials in Russia. In all of these instances, we’ve presented them with our findings and made the same argument: you’re ranked very high on this Impunity Index and the only way to improve your standing is to solve these crimes. We’ll be tracking it, we’ll be measuring it, we’ll give you credit when you’re successful, and we will criticize you when you’re not.
When you meet with these leaders, like president Aquino in the Philippines, do you get the impression they take this violence seriously? That it’s a big issue and a priority?