On the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, observed annually on Nov 2 , Free Speech Collective focuses on the judgement of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the killing of three journalists – Miguel Ángel López Velasco from Mexico, Lasantha Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka and Nabil Walid Al-Sharbaji from Syria.

In November 2020, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) began an investigation into the murder of journalists in relation to their work, as ultimate consequence of violent attacks and other attempts at silencing their voices. This request was transmitted by the press freedom organisations Free Press Unlimited, Committee to Protect
Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, in cooperation with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and the Center for Justice and Accountability.

Due to the complexity of the issues expressed in the request and the subsequent indictment submitted to this Tribunal on September 2021 (Annex 3) and notified to the authorities on October of the same year, the session was articulated in an opening event held in The Hague on 2 November 2021 and in three thematic hearings dedicated respectively to three national cases identified and selected as representative of the global scenario of human rights violations and impunity in which many journalists around the world operate: Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria.

The three thematic hearings illustrated the specificities of the individual national contexts selected, on the basis of oral and written evidence that also included the circumstances in which three journalists lost their lives as a result of their work. These were, Miguel Ángel López Velasco from Mexico, Lasantha Wickrematunge from Sri Lanka and Nabil Walid Al-Sharbaji from Syria.

The events are united, according to the indictment, by a “continued impunity, without concrete perspective for justice in the country in question” (Indictment, p. 6). They are also, according to the indictment, “reflective of a wider pattern of violence against journalists in these contexts, and illustrate the ways in which these States, by act or omission, fail to honour their obligations under international human rights law” (Indictment, p. 6).

The three hearings were held, on 26-27 April 2022 in Mexico City, and for the Sri Lanka and Syria cases, on 12-13 May 2022 and 16-17 May 2022 in The Hague.

The summary of the judgment of this Tribunal was delivered in The Hague on 19 September 2022. Here are the recommendations:

Since it is the citizens and peoples who have an absolute need for information, only the vigorous development of processes of democratisation and liberalisation of power can trigger in the countries observed (and more generally) a significant reversal of course and the realisation of acceptable conditions for the existence of free and pluralist information.

In this context, the existence of a judiciary that is truly independent of the executive power and the strengthening of the police operating in conjunction with prosecutors are indispensable measures for curbing the criminality that targets journalists and their function of informing the public.

As has been amply illustrated in the analysis of three individual country cases, the systematic impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of violence and murder, and those who order and organise them, may be the result of a number of different causes: the open political cover offered to the perpetrators of the criminal acts; the status of those who order or who organise the attacks; the omissions of the competent authorities; the weakness or lack of independence of judges and prosecutors; the inadequacy of the investigative will, or techniques used; and so on.

The passive acceptance of impunity on the part of governments and the lack of incisive countermeasures on the legal and organisational level remain the direct responsibility by omission of the institutions and ruling classes and an ignominy for the countries in which these events occur.

By clearly bringing to light the repressive practices existing in the countries brought to trial, illuminating areas otherwise destined to remain in the shadows, illustrating the dynamics of individual crimes committed against journalists, this Tribunal has fulfilled part of its task: to give voice to the victims, to ascertain the responsibilities of governments and states, to point the finger at perpetrators and political perpetrators of violence by denouncing the connivances they have enjoyed.

It is also necessary to emphasise the need for a strategy directed at combating the repression, violence and killings of journalists. It is necessarily destined to take concrete form in a plurality of initiatives put in place by different actors operating in individual countries and at the international level.

In this session, the Tribunal has learned of the many and serious violations of the rights of journalists in the three countries under Indictment and found Guilty. The three cases examined in depth exemplify the negative impact on all the victims, their families and colleagues, the media in general, and the resulting lack of freedom of expression that undermines the rule of law and democratic participation.

The Tribunal believes in the necessity for practical actions that can have an effect on the continuing problem of impunity found in each of the three countries and elsewhere. Bringing an end to impunity is fundamental to the process of transformation to a safe environment for journalists and the restoration of the freedom of expression and other rights denied to journalists and detailed in the Tribunal’s hearings.

While the Tribunal recognises the importance of international law and standards, and the mechanisms and Special Procedures associated with them, as well as those developed on a regional basis, the continuing and deepening problem of murders of journalists with impunity indicates that something different must be added to the efforts to protect journalists and the freedom of expression.

Nation states must diligently fulfil their obligations under international humanitarian law, and of course the obligations imposed upon them by national law. Indeed, they should go beyond existing law by undertaking law reforms, education programs, allowing international independent experts to investigate, promoting the importance of the freedom of the press among the people, and other initiatives that are likely to protect journalists and their families, thereby protecting and expanding the public space for communication imperative for more informed citizens. They must end impunity where it exists.

However, as amply demonstrated in our hearings, many states are failing in their duties to protect journalists from attacks; to ensure their freedom from arrest on trumped up charges, from false imprisonment, from torture, from being disappeared, and from attacks equating to discrimination because of their opinions expressed in their work; to provide effective remedies; to make reparations for their injuries and those of their families; and to ensure a safe environment by holding accountable in law the perpetrators, especially those who encourage,
order and organise, or who are complicit in, the attacks on journalists.

The Tribunal takes the view that the highly developed framework of laws and mechanisms, international, regional and state, for the protection of journalists is, in general, lacking one necessary element: the people. Civil society needs to be prioritised in working towards transforming the media into a safe space. In other words, work must also be done from the bottom up, to develop a civil society response to ending impunity and restoring freedom of expression where it has been lost or constricted.

This will require the development of a larger and more comprehensive alliance of those in the information and communication sector linking a movement to protect journalists and extend the space for free expression with other movements for freedom and justice.

Journalists are major actors in the attempt to expose threats to others, such as whistle blowers who expose political corruption; lawyers who challenge government actions and defend human rights activists; and environmental defenders who challenge corporate devastation of the environment. Linkages with these other sectors for mutual protection could provide the impetus to transform the political apathy that allows impunity to continue.

It is with that understanding that the Tribunal makes the following Recommendations:

To the United Nations (and beyond)
1. That there should be a comprehensive independent review of the apparent inability of the international community’s initiatives, largely through the United Nations mechanisms and Special Procedures, and international humanitarian law, to protect journalists, media workers and even media organisations, and to end impunity. It should be tasked with making practical recommendations for a more effective system,
and be done as a matter of urgency.

To the governments of Mexico and its states, Sri Lanka, and Syria
2. Immediately cease the complicity, connivance and participation of government agencies and all public authorities in the harassment, persecution and murder of journalists and others engaged in media work and in defending the right to freedom of expression.
3. End impunity by ensuring that all attacks against journalists are thoroughly investigated and effective prosecutions mounted against those suspected on legal grounds to be the perpetrators, those who organised them, those who ordered the attacks, and the political, economic, or criminal networks that support them. Provide for certain, adequate, and effective sentences.

Clarify to the public what was the underlying cause and hidden interests to be served by the attacks.

To all States
4. All countries should take appropriate actions to protect journalists and independent media organisations from attacks intended to restrict the freedom of expression, most egregiously the killing of journalists. Effective investigatory mechanisms and practices need to be staffed with trained personnel in a context of independent prosecution and independent judiciary with the authority to impose deterrent punishments.
5. All countries should adopt policies and implement practices ensuring transparency by providing adequate up-to-date and appropriate information to the public regarding investigations and judicial hearings with regard to attacks on journalists.
6. Countries should not allow impunity to persist through competing or conflicting jurisdictional claims such as seems to have happened in Mexico. A clear and explicit and jurisprudentially consistent method of resolving such disputes should be adopted into law.
7. All countries should investigate crimes against journalists within a perspective that such crimes are likely to be related to the victim’s journalistic work rather than assuming ab initio that it is not.
8. Strong protection mechanisms must be available for threatened journalists, relatives, witnesses and journalists’ sources. These must be fit for purpose and local conditions, adequately funded and must be implemented with vigour.
9. While media outlets and journalists, like the rest of society, may also deserve criticism for the manner in which they perform their duties, the authorities should always choose the path of reasoned and specific criticism, avoiding stigmatisation or indiscriminate attacks on journalists and free information directed at denigrating the function of the media and the entire profession.
10. Where journalists as a group are being targeted in a country, the national government has a primary responsibility to relocate the journalists and families, assuring them a life with dignity and the conditions in which they are able to continue working as journalists. Such relocation should allow for a return in the future to their homes and a peaceful work environment. Relocation must not be a method of silencing journalists.
11. Bring pressure on international agencies and other nation states to provide safe passage and resettlement for those who wish to flee, literally for their lives, and those of family members. Attention must be paid to making such removal and resettlement more rapid, more certain and less stressful than at present.
12. An independent fund should be established, with funds from both public and private sources to support university academics, independent organisations, and other researchers to continue and deepen research on the restriction of freedom of expression, attacks on journalists and media organisations, and impunity.
13. Guarantee the legal and other conditions enabling journalists to organise in order to protect themselves as working journalists in the search for truth, justice and memory.
14. In all countries, where there are suitable conditions consideration be given by community groups and other civil society organisations to the establishment of local, regional and national People’s Tribunals or Citizens’ Inquiries, either permanently or ad hoc, to inquire into and publicise attacks on journalists, their causes, structural and immediate, and the perpetrators and those higher up who are responsible for the attack.
and to make further Recommendations as appropriate in their respective circumstances.
To All Organisations in the Information Communication Sector
15. Work together for the specific purposes of increasing public understanding of the problem of attacks on journalists carried out with impunity, and applying pressure on governments to carry out their rights-protecting obligations. The Safer World for the Truth coalition could form the core of such an alliance, expanded to include a range of relevant organisations, academics in mass communications and other relevant departments and representatives from trade unions of communication workers.
16. The alliance recommended in Recommendation 15 should seek to increase its impact by developing further linkages with other sector organisations whose members are also being attacked and murdered, such as lawyers and environmental defenders.
17. Those organisations engaged in monitoring attacks on journalists should extend their research capacity to investigate the dynamics of impunity, the political-economic causes of, and beneficiaries from, restrictions on freedom of expression including the attacks on journalists and media organisations, and the identity of the organisers and masterminds of attacks on journalists.
18. In order to have a more comprehensive set of data that reveals the social cost of attacks on journalists, monitoring data should be collected on survivors (injured or otherwise) and consequential injury to others in the attack, including to bystanders. The same applies to journalists’ sources, a much-neglected category but one that is essential for the production of news.
To Corporations (especially those operating in Mexico, Sri Lanka and Syria)
19. Affirm and implement a commitment to human rights standards and a commitment to freedom of expression specifically; convey that commitment directly to governments at all levels (local, regional, federal); use their position to ensure that their business associates, partners, suppliers etc adhere to those commitments and have no connection or dealings with those who violate those standards.
20.Take seriously their obligations as employers and improve their policies and practices for the protection of the safety and health of their journalists and other media workers, including specific protections where female journalists are at special risk.

Access the judgement and the report of the Tribunal (click here for more details on the Permanent People’s Tribunal) :

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