This year, on 15 May, award winning journalist Javier Cardenas Valdez was shot and killed as he walked through the streets of Culiancán, Sinaloa, Mexico. Valdez died a few streets from the office of the newspaper he founded, Riodece, where he had reported unrelentingly on the country’s brutal drug trafficking gangs, and the widespread corruption linked to their activities. Valdez was the fifth journalist killed in Mexico this year. Since his death, six others have been killed, bringing the total number of journalists killed in Mexico this year to 11.
Although a shocking act of brutality, this attack was not the first time Valdez had been threatened for his work. In the most extreme, in 2009, a grenade was thrown through the window of Valdez’s office. No one was ever held responsible for the grenade attack, and no one has yet been held accountable for his death, a pattern that dominates attacks and killings of journalists around the world.
In 2017, being a journalist anywhere in the world carries major risks. This year alone, at least 55 journalists have been killedin around 25 different countries. In 2016, the number killed was 102. On top of this, hundreds of journalists continue to be attacked, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and are subject to enforced disappearance, from Bangladesh to Turkey to Malta to Mexico. In many of the countries where these abuses are most common, the perpetrators are never found, or never brought to justice.
These are more than statistics. Every number represents an individual whose life was cut short because they sought to bring stories to the public through their reporting and expose the truth. Impunity for their killings doesn’t just put others at risk, it leaves their family and friends without justice.
It’s been more than three years since Brazilian journalist Pedro Palma was shot and killed as he returned home to his wife and daughter, and still no one has been charged or prosecuted for his murder. Like Valdez, Palma was a vocal reporter on corruption and had received threats before that went without investigation. Reporting on the powerful can have deadly consequences, and impunity for the masterminds of attacks like that on Palma, which are often linked to powerful actors, is as much of a threat to free expression as impunity for those who carry out the killings.
According to UNESCO, of the devastating 930 journalist killings between 2006 and 2016, only 10% have ever been fully resolved, and the perpetrators brought to justice. Impunity is a global affliction, and despite numerous UN resolutions and commitments to address it, it remains one of the most significant barriers to journalists’ safety. Impunity builds a self-perpetuating cycle – when perpetrators of attacks walk free, others are emboldened to commit similar crimes without fearing accountability. This cycle has a detrimental knock-on effect on the right to free expression in any country. This cycle must end.
A free press, one of the most essential elements of a functioning democracy, allows the public to access information, and question the activities of their government and powerful individuals. But this type of scrutiny isn’t always welcome. Journalists reporting on government corruption, human rights abuses, or other illegal activities can face threats, surveillance, judicial harassment, attack and even death as a result of their work.
This risk intensifies for women journalists, who face gender-specific threats, including sexual violence, as well as abuse and harassment, in particular online. Widespread misogyny in societies around the world exacerbates the issue of impunity, combining with institutional sexism to obstruct access to justice. This means that not only do women face an additional layer of threats, but they also face a higher likelihood of impunity for attacks against them.
In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 33/2 on the Safety of Journalists, recognising impunity as a core threat to the right to freedom of expression and information. It commits states to take steps to preventattacks on journalists and create a safe environment for their work, to protect journalists from threats and attacks, and to prosecute perpetrators, bringing a decisive end to impunity. It calls on states to release all arbitrarily detained journalists.
States are currently negotiating a follow-up resolution on impunity for attacks against journalists at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York, and discussions are also ongoing on how to improve the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the safety of journalists.
However, promises made in the halls of the UN don’t always translate into action at the national level to ensure thorough investigations and prosecutions, and back this up with the necessary legislative changes to create a safe and enabling environment. Strong civil society action is needed to push states to make these promises a reality, from Dhaka to Dakar, and from Brasilia to Mexico City: change will only come if it is demanded at the national level, and only if it is driven locally.
ARTICLE 19 has developed a guide explaining exactly what UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 on the safety of journalists requires States to do. The media, civil society, and other human rights defenders should use it as a checklist to push action from their governments to prevent, protect and prosecute. Saying the right things at the UN should no longer give governments a free pass.
Journalists like Daphne Caruana Galizia and Gauri Lankesh, killed this year trying to bring the public vital information on abuses of power should have been protected from their attackers, and prosecuting those responsible for their deaths is essential to send a signal that such attacks won’t go without justice.
Press freedom, as a core human rights value, must be grounded in the safety of journalists, and justice for crimes against them. On International Day to End Impunity, as we pause to remember the journalists and communicators who have been killed around the world, it is time for us to demand genuine steps from States to end impunity for these crimes, and ensure meaningful protection and prevention.
 See the report of the UN Secretary-General on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity: http://undocs.org/A/70/290