Q&A: Joel Simon On CPJ’s “Impunity Index” and Violence Against Journalists

“For a long time, the threat was sort of a badge of honor. ‘Yeah, I got a threat, I must be getting to them.’”

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?

The meeting with Aquino was very brief. I think he understands very clearly, but that was not really a working meeting. (We had a working meeting with other officials in his government—I wasn’t there but other representatives from the CPJ staff and board were.) When I say he understands, he understands that it is doing significant damage to the international reputation of the Philippines and that is something that needs to be addressed. Whether there’s political will to do that and whether his government is going to devote sufficient resources and attention to get that done, that’s the open question. He’s certainly made some of the right noises and that’s positive. Our role is to motivate that process.

Have you found that the press in these countries report on the index themselves when they’re released?

They do. We got very significant coverage when we released it and that’s the idea. And more and more domestic media in a lot of these countries is paying attention to it. I know it was widely covered in Russia and in the Philippines.

Iraq’s been listed number one on the index since you introduced it. What’s unique about suppression of the press in Iraq and what makes it so far and away the worst by this measure? Ninety-three murders, all unsolved.

The level of violence against journalists in Iraq is absolutely staggering and, while it’s subsided, it hasn’t completely disappeared. At the height of the violence, we had two years in a row where we had more than thirty journalists killed. There was obviously generalized violence across the society, but journalists were certainly singled out. You didn’t even have to write critically about some of these militant or sectarian groups—just the fact that you were a journalist or working for an international media outlet could get you killed. The scale, and the ferocity and the violence, was unprecedented. Iraq retains a perfect record of impunity and now is the moment they need to start turning that around.

Does lawlessness in a place like Iraq it make it extremely difficult to do the kind of outreach and advocacy organizations like CPJ do? To even attempt to start turning things around?

It’s impossible. But Iraq is changing. The government is weak, it’s facing new challenges because there are demonstrations going on. But it’s also reached a level of maturity where it needs to be held accountable for this record, and we’re starting to do that. There have been a couple of murders under the Kurdish regional government as well. The perception is that Kurdistan is not confronting these kinds of issues. But the reality is there’s increasing violence against and repression of journalists there. We’re absolutely holding them accountable for that record and believe they should be responsive to that kind of pressure.

One of the issues that comes up in this report, and is an obvious extension of violence against journalists, is self-censorship and a “chilling” effect. It seems to be something that’s difficult to concretely measure because it is something that is inherently hidden. How do you go about getting a grip on how much self-censorship is pervading a particular country’s media?

You have to do it reportorially. We’ve done reports on self-censorship—we did one on self-censorship in Colombia a few years ago. The thing about self-censorship is that if you’re afraid to publish a story because it’s going to get you killed, you’re not then going to go to a journalist or someone from the CPJ and say, “Here’s a story that I’m not going to publish because it’s too dangerous, let me tell you about it.” If there’s self-censorship, then by definition they’re not going to talk about it because they’re afraid. It’s like covering any other kind of human rights issue. You have to develop very close relationships with your sources. They have to feel confident that you can protect them. You have to feel confident that they’re being honest. It’s a painstaking thing to document. But on one level it’s also obvious—you can just talk to people in an anecdotal way, over dinner or something, and they will say, “Oh my God, I know this but I’m not going to publish that because it’s going to get me killed.” That kind of stuff you become aware of. What’s much harder to do is to document the systematic nature of self-censorship.

Going back to the higher level meetings you have had with governments, one of the issues I imagine comes up is that you’re meeting with people who in some cases are involved in the corruption. How do you go into a negotiation with someone who may not be particularly sympathetic to your view or is looking to undermine it?

Nobody’s going to do this because they want to be nice. You’re there talking about interests. You assume that they’re only going to act when they believe it’s in their political interest to act. They’re political figures, and they’re balancing competing interests, some of which are very powerful. You’ve got to put enough weight on the scale and make arguments that convince them they should reform because it’s in their political interest.

You can make those arguments in all sorts of ways. You can make it at the broad theoretical level: The democratic development of your country is dependent on having a free and open press and in the long term this is in your national interest. Some heads of state are sophisticated enough and have a long-term vision and recognize that. Then there are short-term arguments: you’re standing on this list affects the way donor countries perceive you and is going to have a very direct impact on international aid.

For the most part, political leaders recognize that this kind of negative attention in the international and the domestic media is harmful. If they can take steps to correct it, they will. The problem is they’re often confronting powerful, entrenched interests that are behind these murders. Sometimes they’re criminal groups, sometimes intelligence agencies are suspected, and it’s difficult to investigate. So you have to put enough pressure on them to confront these challenges.

Can you be daunted by what sometimes looks like an impossible task? In Mexico, for example, you’ve met with the president and made some progress. But a lot of the corruption that allows people to get away with murdering journalists is at the level of law enforcement and the courts.

It’s daunting, but you have to have a long-term view of this. We’ve seen some countries begin to turn it around. It happens in the context of a more generalized improvement. In other words, as long as the levels of violence remain at the level at which they are in Mexico, it’s going to be very difficult for the government to confront this fully. But what we certainly want to see is that it gives this area—freedom of expression, freedom of the press, violence against journalists—sufficient attention. So that as the overall environment improves, this is an area in which we start to see progress.

Keep in mind that Mexico is very complex. I was a journalist in Mexico for many years and at that time it was dangerous and difficult to write political criticism of the leadership. Now that’s gone. You can say whatever you want about the government in Mexico and nothing’s going to happen to you—in Mexico City, anyway. Now it’s much more about reporting on the web of corruption and complicity that sustains the trafficking and criminal organizations at the regional and local level. Those are the things that get you killed. I’ve seen changes in Mexico over the course of the time that I’ve been following developments there. Certainly some improvements in the overall press freedom climate. So, I have a long view of these issues, and you have to make absolutely clear to the government that you have that view and you’re not going away. They can’t simply wait for you to get tired of it.

The report says that local journalists are by far the most under fire in countries where there is violence against the press. Some of the reasons for this are probably obvious, but from where you stand, why is it that local journalists are under such greater threat?

Something like 94 percent of the journalists included on this Index are journalists working in their own country. First of all, some of the obvious things. If you’re an international correspondent and you get threatened, you leave. Or you have that option. Second of all, you probably have better resources in terms of basic protection. Maybe you live in a more secure environment in a major city or something like that—that helps. You also have a lot of visibility. If anything happens to you, it’s a huge international incident. If you look at someone like Paul Klebnikov in Russia, those are iconic cases and they’re very well known. Basically, our goal is to give local journalists that same level of visibility.

But the reality is, if you’re a radio reporter for some rural community in the Philippines, and you’re reporting that the mayor is involved in some sort of corruption, the mayor knows exactly where you live. You’re not going anyway, unless you flee your own town. But this is how you make your living and there may not be anywhere you can go. You’re really a sitting duck. That’s what makes it incredibly risky for local journalists, especially in small communities.

In countries that rank highly on the Impunity Index, what is the presence of other advocacy groups—local groups with a similar mission to CPJ? Do they exist and do they have an impact?

In many of these countries, there are strong local groups and they absolutely play a critical role in mobilizing local journalists and generating domestic attention on this issue. It’s really the pincer of international and domestic pressure that gets these governments to listen.

It’s pretty startling to read in this report that 40 percent of journalists who were murdered in the listed countries in the last decade had received threats before they were killed. Does CPJ have a recommendation for journalists about what they should do should they receive a threat?

At the IFEX meeting we had a panel discussion about this very thing, responding to threats. The issue is complex. We looked at different countries and how different governments have responded. I started out our discussion with a journalist from Pakistan, and I asked him about the murdered Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad: how does a journalist like that respond to a threat, where does he turn?

To make a long answer short, the answer is that he has nowhere to turn. He did what is the best thing you can do. He tried to make key people aware of the threat, like the researcher at Human Rights Watch and colleagues in the journalism world. He wanted to make sure that everyone was aware of the threat so that if anything happened people understood where the threat was coming from. But there was no one in the government he could turn to, there was nowhere he could go for help.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, which has actually seen its standing improve, they actually created a joint partnership between the government and local press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists (not to be confused with us). It’s a quasi-governmental mechanism. If you go to them and say you’ve been threatened, for the most part they respond. The case has to be vetted by the journalism groups and approved and if a determination is made that you’re a legitimate journalist under threat, they will help to relocate you and provide basic things like cell phones and emergency numbers. And it has made a difference.

One of the things another participant in the discussion brought up was that in the Philippines, for a long time, the threat was sort of a badge of honor. “Yeah, I got a threat, I must be getting to them.” It was a bit like a lawsuit—if someone threatens you with a lawsuit, in some instances that means you’ve done your job, because someone’s pissed off. But a lawsuit is one thing; a death threat is something else entirely. That culture is changing in the Philippines. People do take these threats seriously and they’re more likely to take action and I think that’s one of the lessons from the research: threats do need to be taken seriously.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , , , ,