A grassroots prosecution seeks justice for murdered journalists around the world

On Thursday, the Committee to Protect Journalists published the latest edition of its Global Impunity Index—an annual list ranking the worst countries in the world when it comes to convicting the killers of journalists. The five top offenders—Somalia, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, and Afghanistan, in that order—remained unchanged from the 2020 list, though CPJ cautioned that this year’s data does not fully reflect the current situation in the latter country; the data covers the year to August 31, the date on which US forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan amid a rapidly worsening situation for Afghan journalists under the new Taliban regime. In all, CPJ calculated that the perpetrators of 226 of the 278 murders of journalists worldwide in the past decade—or eighty-one percent—still have not been convicted. This marked an improvement on the decade from 2010 to 2020, but not by much.

Starting today, CPJ is taking part in a novel effort to do something about this impunity rate—within the limits imposed by the international legal system, at any rate. The group recently joined with Reporters Without Borders and Free Press Unlimited, an organization based in the Netherlands, to found A Safer World for the Truth, a collaborative press-freedom project that, in turn, established a “People’s Tribunal” to hear the cases of murdered reporters. People’s Tribunals, as the project explains, lack substantive legal authority; instead, they seek to administer “grassroots justice” at the level of civil society by generating attention, and an evidentiary record, around crimes that governments and the international community won’t tackle. The concept has its roots in the sixties, when the International War Crimes Tribunal—which was also known as the Russell Tribunal after its founder, the philosopher Bertrand Russell—found the United States guilty of genocide and other atrocities in Southeast Asia. (Another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, presided.) Since then, People’s Tribunals have taken on the military dictatorship in Chile, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the US occupation of Iraq, among other matters. In some cases, such tribunals aim to leverage popular pressure toward formal legal action; in others, they perform more of a truth-and-reconciliation function.

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The People’s Tribunal for murdered journalists was convened by the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, an organization that was founded in Italy, in 1979, in a bid to institutionalize the practice. The organization independently selected a panel of expert judges. (They include Marcela Turati, a Mexican journalist and press advocate whom Stephania Taladrid has profiled for CJR.) A team of prosecutors was also tapped for the tribunal, led by Almudena Bernabeu, an international human-rights lawyer. This morning, at 10am local time, Bernabeu began to lay out her case at an opening hearing in an elegant, wood-paneled church in The Hague, the Dutch city that is a hub for international justice. Impunity around the murders of journalists reflects “something bigger,” and is tied up in the fate of democracy worldwide, she said. “I had the disgraceful experience of having to live in the United States during the Trump administration. It was particularly scary to see how media was [used] as a baton for political manipulation, for confusion, and for eventually advancing an agenda” around election fraud.

The prosecution will seek to “indict” the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Syria in the murders of three journalists in particular: Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was killed in 2009 and had reported critically on leaders during Sri Lanka’s civil war; Miguel Ángel López Velasco, who was killed in Mexico in 2011, alongside his wife and son, having received repeated threats; and Nabil Al-Sharbaji, who died in a Syrian jail in 2015 following years of detention and torture. Each of these cases will get a dedicated, two-day hearing early next year (two of them in The Hague; López’s in Mexico City), ahead of a closing hearing on World Press Freedom Day, in May. (The indicted states will have an opportunity to defend themselves then; if they choose not to, the Permanent People’s Tribunal will appoint someone to represent them ex officio.) Today’s opening hearing was intended to lay out the broader pattern of impunity around the world, with the aid of some prominent witnesses. The first to be called by Bernabeu was Pavla Holcová, a Czech reporter whose colleague Ján Kuciak was murdered in Slovakia in 2018. The threatened Philippines journalist Maria Ressa spoke by video about an hour ago, followed by the fiancée of the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The son of the murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia is scheduled to testify this afternoon.

The People’s Tribunal is one of a number of high-profile initiatives to have raised awareness of crimes against journalists beyond traditional journalistic circles. Today also marks the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, as designated by the United Nations General Assembly. (The date was picked in 2013, to commemorate the deaths of two French journalists in Mali that year.) Recently, meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, on behalf of threatened journalists everywhere. The award was symbolically important and captured global attention. And yet, of course, impunity continues; as I noted at the time, some of the congratulatory rhetoric around the Nobel came from leaders—not least in the Philippines and Russia—who are responsible for, or have failed to strongly push back on, anti-media crimes, including US President Joe Biden, whose administration ultimately punted on punishing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for Khashoggi’s murder.

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Last night, at a press conference that I attended virtually, I asked representatives from the People’s Tribunal how increased awareness might translate into concrete accountability. Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, of CPJ, said it’s no coincidence that the Nobel went to journalists from countries with high rates of impunity, then detailed recent abuses in both. “There’s no way the world hears of this,” she said, “and that courtrooms remain deaf.” Very few things, Bernabeu added, can shine a light like a Nobel. The light from the People’s Tribunal, in terms of global attention, is not likely to shine quite as brightly. But putting evidence on the record is important—and the tribunal mechanism, given its history, puts crimes against journalists in the same bracket as other crimes against humanity. That’s a welcome step, even if it isn’t legal justice in an actual court.

Meanwhile, journalists around the world continue to lose their lives. On Thursday, the day CPJ published its 2021 Impunity Index, Fredy Lopez, a reporter in Mexico (sixth on the index), was shot dead at his home, in the presence of his wife and children. Two days later, Orlando Dinoy, a journalist in the Philippines (seventh on the index), was shot dead after an unidentified gunman broke into his apartment. The day after that, in Mexico again, Alfredo Cardoso, a photojournalist, died of his injuries after being abducted from his home and shot. Their cases might one day be resolved, and their killers convicted. But the odds aren’t in their favor.

Below, more on press freedom around the world:

  • Afghanistan: On Friday, gunmen in Kabul opened fire on the car of Ali Reza Sharifi, a journalist with an Iranian state broadcaster. He escaped with only light injuries. Last week, the Afghanistan National Journalists Union said that it had recorded more than thirty instances of violence and threats against reporters since the US withdrawal at the end of August, with the Taliban responsible for the vast majority of those. Sayed Maroof Sadat, an Afghan journalist, was killed by gunmen in Nangarhar province in early October. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack; Al Jazeera has more.
  • Vietnam: Last week, a court in Vietnam convicted five journalists—Truong Chau Huu Danh, Doan Kien Giang, Le The Thang, Nguyen Phuoc Trung Bao, and Nguyen Thanh Nha—of “abusing democratic rights and freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state”; they will serve sentences ranging from two to nearly five years in prison. According to CPJ, all five journalists worked for Bao Sach, a Facebook-based independent outlet that upset officials with its reporting on alleged corruption.
  • India: For the Indian journalist Rana Ayyub’s new Substack newsletter, Aakash Hassan lays out the “nonexistent” state of press freedom in Kashmir, which was stripped of its autonomous regional status—and had its internet shut off—by the Indian government in 2019. “Journalism in Kashmir was never easy, but for our profession, the repression, enforced silence, and outright persecution have reached unprecedented levels,” Hassan writes. “Since 2019, no Western journalist has been allowed to visit Kashmir, save for a single state-guided tour of three journalists” in December 2020.
  • Brazil/Italy: Brazilian journalists have alleged that security personnel working for President Jair Bolsonaro assaulted them at the G20 meeting in Italy over the weekend. The Brazilian newspaper O Globo “reported allegations that broadcast journalist Leonardo Monteiro of TV Globo was punched in the stomach and pushed by Bolsonaro’s security after asking the president why he didn’t attend any G20 events on Sunday,” according to The Guardian. It’s not clear if the personnel were Brazilian or Italian.


A programming note, and an invitation:
Next week, I’ll be writing this newsletter from inside COP26, reporting and commenting on the media stories surrounding both the conference and the climate crisis itself. If you or your news organization is at COP, I’d love to hear about your coverage, or to just say hi; I’m especially interested in hearing from journalists who are covering the conference in an innovative way, and from those representing outlets outside the US. If you aren’t at COP, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the coverage of the conference as it unfolds. You can reach me at jallsop@cjr.org.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Friends and colleagues of slain Sri Lankan newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, seen in the portrait, place candles and flowers on his grave as they commemorate his 11th death anniversary in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 2020. AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena