No justice: how impunity silences journalists


Impunity is a festering sore on freedom of the press. Harassment, violence and murder of journalists are problems around the world — even in Europe, as Index’s project mapping media violations has shown. The numbers speak for themselves: of the 370 media workers murdered in connection with their job over the past ten years, 90% have been murdered without their killers being punished. Many of these crimes aren’t even investigated.

Ahead of the International Day to End Impunity, journalists from across the world told Index why impunity is such a danger to free expression and a free press.

Kostas Vaxevanis, Greek investigative journalist, HOT DOC, and 2013 Index award winner

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Impunity generates corruption and its enemy is the one thing that exposes and threatens it: the freedom of the press.

The HOT DOC is currently facing 40 lawsuits mainly from ministers and politicians in an attempt to shut us down as journalists. We reveal scandals like one with the minister of justice, a former judge who committed an “error” that granted amnesty to officials who had abused public funds, and instead of answering in public as required as politicians, we are being sued. We pester the courts and despite winning lawsuits, we need more than 80,000 euro per year for court expenses.

Heather Brooke, British-American journalist and 2010 Index award winner

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It is a problem that journalists around the world get threatened, intimidated and killed just for doing their job.

These crimes, like any other crime, need to be investigated. If not, it sends a message that this is okay; that the law is only for certain people. It is an implicit acceptance of this behaviour.

If we want to have a strong press, threats, intimidation and murder of journalists can’t be seen to be implicitly condoned by the state. It’s a dangerous message. It makes people frightened to ask tough questions, and if that happens, you are on the way to shutting down a robust press.

Kareem Amer, Egyptian blogger and 2007 Index award winner

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I come from a country where we have a lack of justice. The executive power controls the parliament and the justice system. People feel that if they get mistreated or oppressed by those in power nothing will protect them or bring them justice.

Not only people who express their opinions suffer from a lack of justice. People from different backgrounds who have a different way of thinking and different interests also don’t trust the justice system. Those who have more power can easily avoid punishment and take revenge against victims who tried to get their rights through judiciary system.

Officially, police officers don’t have any kind of formal immunity. According to the law they can be questioned if they violate the rights of people by torturing or murdering. But, in fact, all those accused of killing protesters and torturing prisoners managed to avoid being punished, with a few exceptions.

I feel that it’s not safe to express your opinions freely in a country where people can easily avoid punishment.

I have been sentenced to four years in jail for writing two articles and publishing them on the internet, and during that time I have been through physical violence and mistreatment committed by security forces. I reported it but no one has been questioned or punished. That made me feel that there is no justice in my country and that it is easy to be humiliated and tortured and you will not get protected, since the judiciary system is practically part of the executive power and the judges do what the authorities want them to do.

Rahim Haciyev, Azerbajiani journalist and acting editor of 2014 Index award winner Azadliq

Rahim Haciyev, deputy editor-in-chief of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadliq (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Rahim Haciyev, deputy editor-in-chief of Azerbaijani newspaper Azadliq (Photo: Alex Brenner for Index on Censorship)

Freedom of expression is the basis of all other rights and freedoms. Free speech is something all authoritarian regimes are worried about as it threatens their existence. That is why freedom of expression is specifically targeted by authoritarian regimes. If there are no free people, there is no freedom of expression. Free speech is a precondition for journalists to be able to work in full strength and thus fulfill their functions in society. Authoritarian regimes organise permanent attacks on journalists with impunity. A free journalist armed with freedom of expression is a threat to an authoritarian regime, this is why perpetrators receive awards, not punishment for oppressing journalists’ rights. This process leads to self-censorship, and journalists stop being carriers of truthful information, which in the end affects society.

Nazeeha Saeed, award-winning Bahraini journalist, who was tortured in police custody

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Impunity is a threat to free expression because journalists and people who report the facts on the ground will feel danger, and if no one gets punished for crimes against journalists or others it establishes a systematic impunity culture. Feeling insecure is something bad, it stops people from having a normal life, functioning and expressing themselves.

Endalk Chala, Ethiopian blogger and co-founder of the Zone9 blogging collective (of which six members are currently imprisoned for their writing)


Impunity is a threat for free expression on many levels. In my experience I have seen impunity when it cultivates self-censorship. Let’s take the case of Zone9 bloggers. Since their arrest there are a lot of people who tried to visit them in prison, take a picture of them, attend their trial and tweet about their hearings but all of these have invited very bad reactions from the Ethiopian police.

Some were arrested briefly, others were beaten and it has become impossible to attend the “trial” of the bloggers and journalists. No action was taken by the Ethiopian courts against the bad actions of the police even though the bloggers have contentiously reported the kinds of harassment. As a result, people have stopped tweeting, taking pictures and writing about the bloggers. Apparently, the volume of the tweets and Facebook status updates which comes from Ethiopia has dwindled significantly. People don’t want to risk harassment because of a single tweet or a picture. This self-censorship could be attributed to impunity, which is pervasive in Ethiopia.

Impunity also causes a lack of trust in the Ethiopian judicial system. I don’t trust the independence of the Ethiopian justice system. I have never seen a police man/woman or a government authority being prosecuted for their bad actions against journalists. The Ethiopian government has been prosecuting hundreds of journalists for criminal defamation, terrorism and inciting violence but not a single government person for violating journalists’ rights. This tells you a lot about the compromised justice system of the country.

Andrei Soldatov, Russian investigative journalist and co-founder and editor of Agentura.Ru

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Russia is known for its traditions of self-censorship. Despite what the laws say, the rules are explained in a quiet voice in some unmarked cabinets. Sometimes the rules are even not explained, and journalists, editors and owners of media have to constantly guess what is allowed at that moment. Not everyone is allowed to ask directly, so we are all in the game about signals sent by the authorities.

Journalists are beaten and killed in Russia, and this provides plenty of room to send such signals to the journalistic community. You don’t need to explain that investigative reporting in the North Caucasus is not allowed anymore: you just need to turn the investigation of Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination in 2006 into a show trial, where the assassins are duly found guilty, but the question of masterminds is never answered. You could be sure, the signal would be taken correctly.

Fergal Keane, Irish journalist, BBC foreign correspondent and 2003 Index award winner

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Impunity allows the enemies of free speech to threaten, torture and kill journalists secure in the knowledge they will never be called to account. I can’t think of a greater threat.

Veran Matic, B92 board of directors chairman and B92 news editor-in-chief

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In my 25 years of experience in Serbia, I have been editor-in-chief of a media outlet that was banned on several occasions and I have been arrested.

Impunity directly encourages and expands violence towards journalists. The culture of producing fear is the most efficient form of censorship. One unsolved murder creates space for implementing the next one without any threat for the executioners. In the meantime, the media gets killed/eliminated in the process.

The lack of discontinuity with Slobodan Milosevic’s authoritarian regime had left room for impunity to remain intact.

Less than two years ago, I decided to make a kind of a breakthrough when it comes to impunity. I proposed the establishment of a mixed commission composed of journalists, members of the police and members of the security information agency. We managed to bring the 1999 murder of Slavko Curuvija to a phase where official indictment was brought, along with arrest of all suspects in this murder case. The 2001 murder of our colleague Milan Pantic is also in the final stage of investigation. A 1994 assassination — of Dada Vujasinovic — is being reviewed by the National Forensic Institute from The Hague because local institutions have compromised themselves in this case.

In the same way as impunity restricts freedom of speech, solving of these cases, at least 20 years later, will surely contribute to journalists being encouraged to do their job in the best possible way. Of course, I am not counting here on the new problems with which journalists and media face, and that call for finding new models of financing high quality journalism for the sake of public interest, worldwide.

The team behind Pao-Pao, a Chinese website focusing on internet freedom issues

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This year, we have seen a rising number of Chinese journalists, academics and human rights lawyers detained, threatened and arrested simply for speaking out online. While Chinese regulations on freedom of speech need to be closely examined, tech companies also play an important role in the deterioration of freedom of speech in China.

While Chinese tech companies are under the tight control of the Chinese authorities, there exists a culture of impunity in the western tech companies, especially when they are doing business in China. When we worked with our partner GreatFire to launch a FreeWeibo iOS application last year (an app to deliver uncensored content from Weibo, the largest social media platform in China), Apple decided to remove the app from their Chinese iTunes store. The only reason given was that Apple received a request from the Chinese authorities. This June, LinkedIn censored user posts deemed sensitive by the Chinese government on the global level, far beyond Beijing’s censorship requirement, even though LinkedIn does not have servers in China.

It would be the start of the end if these global tech companies start removing content simply because they do not want to upset their business relationships with China. It is crucial to hold these companies accountable for their behaviour. Otherwise it will further erode freedom of expression, not only for China, but also for the whole world.

The International Day to End Impunity was set up in 2011 by free speech network IFEX, of which Index on Censorship is a member, with the aim of demanding accountability and justice on behalf of those “targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression”.

This article was originally posted on 21 November 2014 at It was updated at 14:09, 24 November to include the response from Pao-Pao.

UN makes 2 November International Day To End Impunity


The UN has officially recognised 2 November as the International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists. As reported by Index, a draft resolution calling for this was put to a vote on 26 November. Co-sponsored by 80 organisations across 48 countries, it was passed by the Third Committee, which deals with human rights issues.

Index on Censorship, as part of the IFEX network, has welcomed the decision. Annie Game, IFEX Executive Director, stated: “There has never been a more dangerous time for journalists. They are being killed and imprisoned worldwide in record numbers. They face daily threats, attacks and intimidation from private individuals, non-state actors, and government officials who seek to silence them. The overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed with impunity.”

“We welcome the resolution’s call to proclaim November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for crimes against journalists. With complete impunity in nine out of 10 cases of journalist murders worldwide, this decision does not come too soon. This is a crucial step toward guaranteeing that individual journalists can continue to work in the public interest without fear of reprisal, and that those who seek to silence them with violence are brought to justice.”

UN to vote on official day to end impunity


The UN has been urged to officially recognise the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists as the Third Committee, dedicated to dealing with human rights issues, will today be asked to vote on a draft resolution.

The resolution, backed by at least 48 countries, is based on the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, approved on 12 April 2012, which saw United Nations agencies work with member states towards a free and safe working environment for journalists. If successful, the UN Secretary General will present a report on the implementation of the resolution at the next General Assembly 2014, with 2 November officially being recognised as the official UN International Day to End Impunity.

Co-sponsored by 80 organisations and backed by countries including the United States — and even Azerbaijan and Colombia — the draft resolution calls for the acknowledged ‘condemnation of all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers, such as torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention, as well as intimidation and harassment in both conflict and non-conflict situations’.

Index on Censorship as a founding member of IFEX has been supporting the International Day to End Impunity since its launch in 2010 which has seen the 23 November recognised as the day for campaign. Annie Game,  IFEX Executive Director, stated: “This is a positive move forward because IFEX members acknowledged that making the International Day to End Impunity an official UN day can help to raise the global profile of the issue. Every year, a growing number of IFEX members and concerned individuals take part in this campaign that strikes at the very roots of the problem. Having the UN acknowledge the importance of this issue will help us broaden our reach and turn up the volume on the call to end impunity.”

The draft resolution also:

• acknowledges ‘the specific risks faced by women journalists in the exercise of their work, and underlining, in this context, the importance of taking a gender-sensitive approach when considering measures to address the safety of journalists’;
• the acknowledgement that ‘journalism is continuously evolving to include inputs from media institutions, private individuals and a range of organisations that seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, online as well as offline, in the exercise of freedom of opinion and expression, in accordance with article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’;
• and ‘urges Member States to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists and media workers, to ensure accountability through the conduct of impartial, speedy and effective investigations into all alleged violence against journalists and media workers falling within their jurisdiction, and to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice and to ensure that victims that access to appropriate remedies’.

The full draft resolution can be seen here.

This article was originally published on 26 Nov 2013 at

Why no conviction for the men who killed Martin O’Hagan?

Martin O'Hagan, murdered in 2001

Martin O’Hagan, murdered in 2001

Earlier this week, the Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin suggested that investigations and prosecutions for violence carried out during “the Troubles” (that is to say, roughly between 1970 and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998) should be quietly dropped.

The idea, though well meaning, was not well received. Northern Ireland is constantly torn between wanting to forget about the past and requiring justice for history’s victims. It’s unlikely that it can have both at the same time.

The peace process did not bring an end to violence, in spite of the official line. Dissenting groups continued shooting and maiming, albeit in lower numbers.

Among them was the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which, in 2001, took the unprecedented-in-Ulster step of assassinating a journalist.

Martin O’Hagan was an investigative reporter for the Sunday World, an old-style tabloid published in Dublin and Belfast that specialises in stories about gangsters and paramilitaries. As a result, he had been harassed by paramilitaries on all sides, including being kidnapped by the provisional IRA. (He himself had been a member of the Official IRA before giving up on the cause and going into journalism)

O’Hagan had a particular interest in the activities of notoriously violent Belfast loyalist Billy Wright, whom he nicknamed “King Rat”. In 1992, Wright, then a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had attempted to have O’Hagan killed. Later, Wright’s splinter group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, had attacked the Sunday World’s Belfast office.

In 1997, Wright, by then in prison, was killed by rival prisoners in the Irish National Liberation Army (questions remain for some over how the INLA managed to sneak a gun into prison).

Four years later, in 2001, O’Hagan was gunned down. The Red Hand Defenders, an operational name for the Loyalist Volunteer Force, claimed responsibility for the murder.

Twelve years later, no one has been convicted for O’Hagan’s murder. There had been hope that a case could be built against murderers based on a Loyalist “supergrass”, Neil Hyde. But in January, prosecutors dropped the case, citing a risk of basing it on uncorroborated evidence. In September, the case was passed to Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman for investigation. Though O’Hagan’s murder falls outside Attorney General Larkin’s proposed timescale for dropping prosecutions, there seems little prospect of a conviction any time soon

On 23 November, journalists mark International Day To End Impunity, highlighting the remarkable, disturbing frequency with which attacks on reporters go unpunished. It’s very easy to imagine that these are things that only happen in Mexico or Putin’s Russia.

But Martin O’Hagan, a good journalist doing his job of uncovering wrongdoing, was killed in the United Kingdom. And his killers, from the United Kingdom, are still free.

This article was originally posted on 22 Nov 2013 at