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'It's an incredibly dangerous time to be a journalist'

Leonard Proske
November 2, 2020

The Committee to Protect Journalists recently published its Global Impunity Index 2020. DW spoke to CPJ's Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch to find out: Did journalism get any safer this year?

Proteste in Chile - Journalisten
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Brogca

DW: In comparison to any previous year since 1992, 2019 saw less murders of journalists. The number of murders this year, however, has already exceeded last year's. How do you assess this development in terms of journalists' safety in 2020?

Courtney Radsch (CPJ): Unfortunately, the numbers of journalists murdered show us that globally, it’s still an incredibly dangerous time to be a journalist, and existing threats to the physical safety of journalists are further compounded by the ongoing global pandemic and political unrest in many parts of the world. We’ve seen journalists killed this year in several of the countries on the Index, which is not surprising but is deeply disappointing. For example four journalists have already been murdered this year in Mexico, yet we know the chance for anyone being convicted is unlikely. We've only documented one case in Mexico, from 1995, where complete justice was achieved following a journalist’s murder. (Editorial note: The number of journalists murdered in Mexico has risen to 6 since this interview was conducted)

According to data from CPJ, 86 percent of killed journalists worldwide are murdered with impunity. Can you explain why almost 9 out of 10 murders go unpunished?

Dr. Courtney Radsch
Dr. Courtney Radsch, CPJ Advocacy DirectorImage: privat

There are a number of reasons journalist murders so often go unpunished. One is lack of political will. The sad truth is that very often the masterminds of journalists’ murders are either in power or very close to those in power. Even when elected officials may be interested in seeking justice, they may be deterred by threats to their power or personal safety. These problems are compounded when governments lack the infrastructure and institutions to pursue justice, such as independent investigative bodies or an independent judiciary. Given these challenges, impunity often becomes an intractable cycle. Most countries on our list show up year after year. Even if there are arrests or convictions, often the masterminds behind murders remain at large and don’t face any consequences.

Read CPJ's Global Impunity Index 2020 here

In relation to its population, Somalia is the country where most journalists have been murdered with impunity in the past ten years. In what way is the safety of journalists at stake in Somalia?

Since CPJ started collecting data in 1992, 69 journalists have been killed in Somalia and two-thirds of that number are categorized as murder. As cases languish for years, it sends a clear message to working journalists that they too can be silenced. Meanwhile, instead of taking meaningful steps to combat impunity, the government has focused on amending its media law to make it more restrictive and locked up journalists in retaliation for their reporting. We continue to call on authorities in Somalia to make journalist safety and press freedom a priority rather than taking efforts to criminalize journalism

The report states that "legal appeals and lack of political leadership" could thwart the progress of reducing the murders of journalists. What do you mean by that?

When world leaders are silent on cases of murdered journalists, rather than publicly supportive of efforts to secure justice, they send a signal that the murder of a journalist is not that big of a deal. But there are lives at stake, so we can’t afford for world leaders to shrug off impunity. As long as impunity continues in these countries, journalists will never be truly safe.

Malta Mord an Daphne Caruana Galizia
In 2017, Journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in Malta. No one is yet to be convicted of her murder.Image: DW/T. Tosidis

In terms of appeals, what we see is that even in rare instances where there were convictions, like in the case of Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, rulings can be overturned. In April the courts overturned the murder convictions of the four men accused in the 2002 killing, upending the progress made. While the Pearl family has appealed, it means they still don’t have resolution in the murder of their son, which is an incredibly painful experience for any family to go through. And there is no doubt this is in part due to a lack of political leadership to ensure justice is achieved in this case.

Each year, the Impunity Index includes more stable countries, where critical and investigative journalists are at the receiving end of violent attacks. In which of these countries have you seen the most drastic changes when it comes to journalists' safety?

Beyond murders of journalists, many if not all of the countries on this list have deeply concerning press freedom records. For example in  Brazil and India, both democratic countries, we have reported on an alarming crackdown on the press in recent years, including attacks on journalists at protests, legal threats designed to censor outlets, and targeted online harassment, including by top political leaders.

Which country shows the most progress in terms of journalists' safety?

Unfortunately most of the countries on this list have appeared on it consistently. There were some convictions recently, but these are small steps in the greater scheme of justice. In the Philippines in 2019 there was a conviction in the case of the 2009 Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre, one of the deadliest attacks on journalists in history. But it took ten years to get to that point, and the case has already been appealed. In the past year, Mexican authorities achieved convictions for some perpetrators in the murders of journalists Miroslava Breach Velducea and Javier Valdez Cárdenas. But the masterminds are still at large. Unfortunately, all of the countries have a long way to go if they want to improve their records on press freedom.