02. nov 2021.

Impunity Day: Insufficient progress in solving killings of journalists

IPI renews call to end the culture of impunity for crimes against journalists around the world

Foto: Continentaleurope (cc)

November 2 marks International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The occasion draws attention to the fact that the global conviction rate for violent crimes against journalists is very low – in at least nine out of ten cases the killers go unpunished.

The IPI global network calls once again to end the culture of impunity across the globe and to protect the safety of journalists. Criminals and authoritarian forces are silencing independent journalism with violence, and face very little consequences for doing so. Impunity encourages and accelerates further attacks, undermining the future of critical reporting and ultimately democracy.

“Despite occasional, incremental progress in some cases, the fact remains that the vast majority of journalist murders around the world go unpunished”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said to mark International Day to End Impunity. “The effects of this state failure are extremely destructive: journalists exercise self-censorship to stay safe, criminals feel emboldened to attack the press, and the free flow of news and information – a bedrock of democracy – suffers.”

He added: “As IPI has previously warned, we face a rise in open attacks on the press around the world. This is due not least to the failure to investigate previous violence and hold the perpetrators accountable, including when states themselves are directly implicated. Where the killers of journalists face no costs for their actions, the pattern is bound to be repeated and inspire others.”

The following cases are just a glimpse of the many cases of impunity around the world. These unsolved crimes are not just sources of deep pain to the families and colleagues of those targeted; they also undermine press freedom and the public’s right to information. They are a reminder to the international community that the culture of impunity still prevails around the world, and even though some of the cases have seen convictions and other developments in investigations over the years, overall these processes are usually slow or non-existent. Justice delayed is justice denied, and more often than not the hitmen are the only ones convicted, while the masterminds behind assassinations of journalists are almost never held to account.

EIGHT KEY CASES OF IMPUNITY

Jamal Khashoggi (Consulate of Saudi Arabia, Istanbul)

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and well-known critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. His Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside of the building while Khashoggi went into the consulate to collect documents for their upcoming marriage, but he never returned. Instead, Khashoggi was murdered, and his body apparently dismembered by a team of assassins sent from Riyadh. His remains have never been found.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, Bin Salman has absolute control over Saudi Arabia’s security and intelligence organizations, making it “highly unlikely” that the operation could have been carried out without his approval. In July 2021, Amnesty’s International’s security team and Citizen Lab in Toronto uncovered that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had used Pegasus spyware to access the private conversations and messages of close associates of Khashoggi months after his murder.

Saudi Arabia has denied responsibility for the murder. Following pressure from the international community, Saudi authorities arrested 21 people over the killing in September 2019. After a secret trial later that year, 11 people – whose names have never been published – were charged with the murder. They were ultimately given sentences ranging from 7 to 20 years in prison. U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard, who authored an inquiry into Khashoggi’s death, described the Saudi trial as “a mockery of justice”.

The Saudi royal court adviser accused of directing the murder, Saud al-Qahtani, disappeared from public view after the murder, but according to media reports he is being gradually introduced back into the heart of the Saudi government. In 2019 a Saudi court cleared Qahtani of all charges in connection with the assassination.

Meanwhile in Turkey, 26 fugitive Saudi nationals have been tried in absentia for the murder since July 2020. The next hearing will take place on November 23, 2021.

Anna Politkovskaya (Russia)

Prominent Russian journalist and IPI World Press Freedom Hero Anna Politkovskaya was brutally murdered on October 7, 2006. She was carrying groceries to her central Moscow home when she was shot four times at close range. Last month marked the 15th anniversary of her killing and to this day it is unclear who ordered the assassination.

Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin and her reporting exposed high-level corruption in Russia. She was a renowned war reporter of Russia’s second war in Chechnya.

She also raised accusations against Ramzan Kadyrov, who later became the head of Russia’s Chechen Republic and has led the territory in an autocratic and oppressive manner in cooperation with the Kremlin since 2007. At the time of her death, she was finishing a story on the investigation of torture in Chechnya.

In all, six men have been convicted in the case and the last trial took place in 2014. Rustam Makhmudov, the gunman, was sentenced to life in prison and his brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim were sent to a penal colony for 14 and 12 years, respectively. Former policeman Sergei Hajikurbanov was given 20 years in jail. Chechen criminal and businessman Lom-Ali Gaytukayev was given a life sentence for his role in organizing the murder. Another former policeman, Dmitry Pavlyuchenkov, was sentenced to 11 years in prison for tailing Politkovskaya and providing the murder weapon to the killer.

However, Politkovskaya’s assassination is widely believed to have been a contract killing, with the identity of those who ordered it remaining unknown. There has not been any further advancement in the case, even though Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper where Politkovskaya worked, and Politkovskaya’s relatives, among others, have been calling for investigations to continue into who masterminded the murder and hired the killers.

Ahmed Suale (Ghana)

Ahmed Hussein-Suale, also known as Ahmed Divela, was shot dead on January 16, 2019, in Accra, Ghana, while returning home from work. At the time of his death Hussein-Suale was an investigative journalist for the organization Tiger Eye, which is known for its undercover exposure of corruption and human rights abuses in Africa.

In 2018 Hussein-Suale was part of a Tiger Eye investigation which revealed corruption in African football right before the World Cup. The Tiger Eye investigative team had received several death threats due to its work, especially after the football revelation, which had wide consequences on Ghana’s football administration.

Police arrested six people under suspicion of being involved in the murder, but later released them all due to lack of evidence. To this day, the assailants and the masterminds who ordered the killing remain unidentified.

Daphne Caruana Galizia (Malta)

On October 16, 2017, well-known investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bombing shortly after she left her home on Malta’s main island. Caruana Galizia was targeted with several criminal and civil court cases during her career, especially for libel. She had recently participated in the Panama Papers investigation, which found alleged links between the country’s then-prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and hidden offshore bank accounts.

The fight for justice in the Caruana Galizia case – led by her family and a coalition of Maltese and international civil society groups – has been an arduous one. A first conviction in the case finally came on February 23, 2021, when Vincent Muscat (no relation) was sentenced to 15 years in prison for planting and detonating the bomb. Two other two men charged with carrying out the assassination, brothers George and Alfred Degiorgio, are currently in pre-trial detention. Brothers Robert Agius and Jamie Vella are accused of providing the bomb that killed Caruana Galizia, and remain in pre-trial custody as well.

On July 29, 2021, the public inquiry into the assassination concluded that the state of Malta “has to shoulder responsibility for the assassination because it created an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest levels in the heart of the administration of the Office of the Prime Minister”. The most recent development in the case came when Maltese prosecutors indicted businessman Yorgen Fenech on charges of complicity to commit murder on August 18, 2021. The indictment claims that Fenech ordered and paid for the killing. He remains in pre-trial detention after trying to flee Malta on his yacht.

Miroslava Breach Velducea and Regina Martínez (Mexico)

Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Investigative journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea and veteran crime reporter Regina Martínez Pérez are among the dozens of Mexican journalists who have been murdered in the last decade alone. Impunity for attacks on the press is endemic.

Martínez was strangled to death in her home in Xalapa, Veracruz, on April 28, 2012. A correspondent for the respected magazine Proceso, she was an outspoken critic of human rights violations and government corruption, and she reported extensively on drug trafficking organizations operating in Veracruz. A suspect was arrested in October 2012, who then confessed to the murder and was convicted. However, he later retracted his confession and claimed that he had been tortured by the officials and threatened into admitting responsibility.

The official police investigation has been heavily criticized by many experts and organizations. An independent report was published in March 2021, which concluded that the investigation was compromised at the state level and that the country’s special prosecutor must reexamine the case and investigate Martínez’s work as a motive.

Breach reported on organized crime, corruption, and politics for regional and national newspapers like La Jornada and had recently reported on the discovery of a mass grave linked to drug trafficking. She was gunned down in front of her home in the state of Chihuahua on March 23, 2017. The killers left a note which read “For being a loud-mouth” in Spanish.

On August 21, 2020, Juan Carlos Moreno Ochoa was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in the murder, which is believed to have been ordered by a local cartel leader, José Crispín Salazar. In June 2021, another suspect, a former local mayor named Hugo Ahmed Schultz, was sentenced to eight years for his participation in the crime. However, other suspects remain at large.

Lasantha Wickrematunge (Sri Lanka)

Prominent Sri Lankan journalist, editor, politician, and human rights activist Lasantha Wickrematunge was assassinated on January 8, 2009. Wickrematunge and his family had received continuous threats and survived violent attacks for his reporting over the years. He was murdered only a few days before he was supposed to give evidence in a defamation case about the alleged role of the president’s brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in corrupt arms deals.

Wickrematunge’s murder caused an international outcry, but the Rajapaksa government denied any responsibility for the attack. The investigation has been marred by claims from media and government critics that evidence was falsified and planted and that innocent civilians were framed for the murder.

After 2015 presidential elections the new government opened an investigation which concluded that Wickrematunge was likely assassinated by a military intelligence death squad commanded by the defence secretary. Wickrematunge’s daughter filed a complaint on January 8, 2021 with the U.N. Human Rights Committee over alleged government involvement in the murder.

Wickrematunge was named an IPI World Press Freedom Hero in 2010.

Christopher Allen (South Sudan)

Christopher Allen, a freelance journalist from the United States, was killed in 2017 during heavy fighting at the border of South Sudan and Uganda while he was embedded with rebel troops. Rebels and the South Sudanese army gave very differing reports of Allen’s death.

According to rebels, Allen was targeted by government soldiers even though he was wearing a press vest. South Sudanese authorities refused to open an investigation and claimed that government forces had no indication that Allen was a journalist and accused him of “illegally entering the country to work alongside rebels”.

Despite international pressure and disturbing findings of independent reports, which indicated that Allen was deliberately targeted by government soldiers, executed at close range and that his body was stripped naked after his death, the South Sudanese authorities have so far not opened a formal investigation into the killing.

Ján Kuciak (Slovakia)

Journalist Ján Kuciak, an investigative reporter for the Slovak news website Aktuality.sk, and his girlfriend, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered on February 21, 2018. They were found by the police on the morning of February 26, shot dead in their home in Veľká Mača, a village 65 km east of Bratislava. The murders shocked Slovakia and sparked large protests, forcing the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico as well as the country’s interior minister and chief of police.

Three people have been sentenced for their roles in the crime: gunman Miroslav Marček; getaway driver Tomáš Szabó; and middleman Zoltán Andruskó. Businessman Marian Kočner and his associate Alena Zsuzsová were charged with ordering and masterminding the killing. Kuciak’s reporting on tax fraud and financial crime had implicated some of Slovakia’s political and business elite, including Kočner.

Kočner and Zsuzsová were acquitted in September 2020, but the not-guilty verdicts were later overturned by the Slovak Supreme Court on June 15, 2021. The case will now be returned to the Specialized Criminal Court and retried by the same judges despite the prosecutor’s request to change the judicial panel. IPI representatives monitored the trial of Kočner and Zsuzsová as well as the Supreme Court hearing in the case.

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