Commemorating the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists
The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists is observed on November 2 in remembrance of two French journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, who were killed on that date in 2013 while reporting on the ground in Mali. Their deaths were a rallying cry that brought overdue and much-needed attention to the worldwide problem of impunity for the murder of journalists. Murder is a leading cause of death for journalists and it persists due to impunity which sees many governments and individual officials not only failing to punish perpetrators but even protecting them.
In 2020 alone, 20 journalists have been killed to date while on assignment, with many of their killers acting with complete impunity. On November 2, the Sentinel Project commemorates and recognizes those journalists who have selflessly and dutifully risked their lives for the justice and livelihood of others. This issue is of particular importance for the Sentinel Project’s mission since a free press is a critical element in any society for challenging extremist narratives and abuses of government power which can contribute to mass atrocities, including genocide.
The Protection of Journalists: A Legal Snapshot
“Impunity over time is a major, if not the main, cause of the consistently high number of journalists killed every year. In some cases, impunity may be genuinely caused by a lack of evidence. Although in many cases, all indications are that impunity is intentional. There is a lack of political will to prosecute, or indeed there is political protection of the perpetrators.” – Protecting the Right to Life of Journalists: The Need for a Higher Level of Engagement by Christof Heyns & Sharath Srinivasan
Journalists are protected through international humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols. The rights to receive news and to freely report on it are also firmly established in international law in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other United Nations resolutions. While these frameworks govern international law, nation-states are responsible for implementing them at the ground level. Norms must be developed and strengthened in the investigation and prosecution of violence against journalists within borders. Therein lies the greatest challenge and is where the Sentinel Project enters to fill in such gaps.
The Sentinel Project Seeks to Fill the Void of Threatened Local Press Corps
Given the nature of the Sentinel Project’s work, we cannot stress enough the invaluable necessity of a free and protected press in the prevention of mass atrocities. Two projects of ours capture that very need: Kijiji Cha Amani and Peaceful Truth.
Kijiji Cha Amani is a civilian protection pilot project that partners with threatened communities in the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The project aims to counter misinformation that is widespread in developing nations by utilizing technology to engage members of the public in monitoring, verifying, and stopping it. This is especially important since people living in conflict zones need reliable information to inform potentially life-changing decisions. This work includes community involvement, crisis moderation, and transparency as a means of contextualizing, and thereby countering, misinformation. These efforts by Kijiji Cha Amani have led to greater safety for civilians through increasing access to reliable information.
Similarly, the Peaceful Truth project in Mandalay, Myanmar has focused on misinformation management by countering mistruths through a messaging system as a means of fostering greater social stability and civic engagement. By increasing citizen access to reliable information, which is necessary for effective decision making at both the individual and communal levels, the project acts as a proxy for a free, reliable, and independent press.
The impunity of violence towards journalists threatens accountability and, consequently, can fuel the very misinformation and violence that the Sentinel Project works to eradicate. Mass atrocities and genocide proliferate in the dark. In order to prevent them, we must also protect the journalists that shed light on their inception, development, and escalation. The fight to end impunity is much needed but, unfortunately, far from over.
Journalists for Human Rights: A Case Study in Ending Impunity for Violence
Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), a fellow Canadian organization, shares in this rallying cry for denouncing impunity. “Truth is under attack worldwide, a situation expressed most starkly in the mounting numbers of journalists killed annually, as tracked by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders,” JHR said in a statement shared with the Sentinel Project.
While JHR’s organizational footprint spans Africa, the Middle East, with Indigenous communities in Canada, their work in South Sudan (a country in which the Sentinel Project shares a common footprint with our work to counter misinformation) proves that ending violence against journalists is within our reach. From 2016 to 2020, JHR worked on training journalists and fostering a safe media environment in response to the extraordinary number of journalists being killed in the course of their work.
As JHR told us, “In short, there was open warfare between government and media. Journalists were being arrested simply for daring to question authority. Lost in the process: any notion that government be held accountable by journalists to the needs of its citizens.”
Over the course of JHR’s four years of work in South Sudan, they trained nearly 500 leading government officials, including members of the police and National Security, in best practices for working with and respecting the media’s right to do their work. This helped to normalize the practice of journalists questioning authority on the air and in print. Consequently, since 2017, no journalist has died in the course of their work in South Sudan.
This case study in South Sudan reinforces the fact that oversight matters, as JHR further explained. “When journalists are intimidated and bullied from doing their work properly, their ability to perform this vital oversight function is weakened significantly. And in an environment of weakened oversight, abusers are emboldened to commit acts of cruelty or corruption without fear of consequences. When journalists are left alone to do their oversight work properly, this can and does lead to better outcomes for people – even in places like South Sudan.”
While the landscape for journalists in South Sudan remains fraught, there remains longstanding work ahead to end the impunity of crimes against journalists, JHR’s work not only highlights the grave importance of this work but also debunks the myth that ending impunity is too tall of an order.
While much work remains, JHR details that what they’ve “…seen is that working to build a foundation of support for media across government and civil society is a crucial step to helping roll back a culture of fear and get them to a place where they can do their work.”
 Article 79 of the 1977 Additional Protocol I declares that journalists reporting in areas of armed conflicts are considered civilians, within the meaning of Article 50, paragraph 1. Journalists are protected under the Conventions and the Additional Protocol, so long as they do not take any actions that would affect their status as civilians, such as participating in hostilities.
 Alexandre Balguy-Gallois, The protection of journalists and news media personnel in armed conflict, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/irrc_853_gallois.pdf
 Christof Heyns and Sharath Srinivasan, Protecting the Right to Life of Journalists: The Need for a Higher Level of Engagement, https://repository.up.ac.za/bitstream/handle/2263/21786/Heyns_Protecting(2013).pdf?sequence=1.