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Accountability dies when journalists are killed

What does it cost to silence a muckraking reporter? In the Philippines in 2011, officials paid just $250 to hire a journalist-slaying gunman. In Slovakia in February 2018, Ján Kuciak and his fiancée were killed for about $80 000.

For corrupt politicians and crime bosses, neither sum is significant. The cost to democracy, however, is immeasurable.

Today more journalists are murdered because of their reporting than die in war zones. Since 1992, when the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began compiling data, 1 324 journalists have been killed on the job, and 849 were executed for their work. But in nearly 90% of these murders, the people who ordered the attacks escaped justice. On the rare occasion there was a full investigation, only low-level associates were ensnared. The big fish usually got away.

The problem is not confined to countries in the Global South. October 16 marked one year since Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist investigating corruption, was killed by a car bomb. Three men have been charged but the masterminds remain at large.

Similarly, Slovakia (like Malta a European Union country) has failed to deliver justice in the brutal murder of Kuciak and his fiancée at their home near Bratislava. Police made arrests but not all the organisers have been found.

And, although Saudi Arabia has admitted that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, the investigation is unlikely to lead to the prosecution of all those responsible.

Impunity in such cases is a cancer on accountability and democracy. The consequences can be seen in Mexico, where cartel crime goes unreported in much of the country. Cartel-linked killings have had the intended effect of silencing many reporters.

In 2013, the United Nations made November 2 the annual International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. My organisation, the CPJ, supports this effort with our yearly Global Impunity Index, which shows that democracies such as Mexico, Brazil, India, Pakistan and the Philippines consistently fail to convict journalists’ killers.

Democracy and a free press are mutually dependent, and when reporters are silenced, embezzlement, extortion and environmental crimes increase. And though many are fighting back, they could use some help.

A good weapon in the struggle against impunity is sanctions. Since 2016, the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act in the United States has authorised the US president to impose visa bans and freeze the assets of foreign nationals suspected of gross human rights violations. Canada enacted its own Magnitsky law in October 2017, and Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and the United Kingdom have introduced similar measures.

But enacting a law is not the same as using it. Except for a few individuals implicated in the 2004 murder of Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov in Moscow, Magnitsky-type laws have not been widely deployed in the defence of journalists. Governments committed to upholding democracy should use the tools at their disposal to protect those who risk their lives for free speech.

Press freedom organisations can also do more. In Mexico, for example, the CPJ worked with reporters and advocacy groups to lobby the national government to treat attacks on journalists as federal offences — and to bypass state-level law enforcement agencies when corruption is suspected. The federal government responded by creating a special prosecutor for crimes against freedom of expression.

Still, a lack of funding for the prosecutor’s office is threatening to reverse its modest gains. The incoming government of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador can tackle impunity, but only if the special prosecutor is fully resourced.

As governments dither, journalists are defending themselves the best way they know how: with journalism. The collective response to the deaths of Caruana Galizia and Kuciak illustrates this well. Both were members of international investigative networks and, today, those groups are following the leads and finishing the stories interrupted by murder.

The message to would-be assassins is simple: killing reporters will not kill the story. — © Project Syndicate

Robert Mahoney is the deputy executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists

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