"Attacking a journalist must lead to legal action and punishment"
Today, November 2nd, is a day of international recognition that it is still possible to enjoy impunity for a crime against democracy, which is what murdering a journalist implies. The UN has proclaimed today the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists”.
It has to stop now. Those who threaten, injure and kill journalists must be prosecuted and punished, says Cilla Benkö, Director General of Swedish Radio.
This issue was in focus in Sweden following the murder of the Swedish Radio correspondent Nils Horner in Kabul eighteen months ago. After the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, attacks against journalists and free speech became a dominant discussion topic in much of the world for some time. But now it is fairly quiet again.
According to a statement made by INSI, the International News Safety Institute, over 60 media employees were killed during the first half of 2015. As a direct result of that particular attack against Charlie Hebdo, a peaceful country in the West is at the top of the list of murdered journalists for the first time.
But it is not in the West that most crimes against journalists occur. According to the INSI it is countries such as South Sudan and Yemen that stand out, each with six instances of media workers being killed, closely followed by countries such as Iraq and Libya. Local journalists examining corruption and crime account for more than 90 percent of those killed.
2015 is not an exceptional year. This is confirmed by a report published today by UNESCO showing that about 700 journalists have been murdered since 2006. That means an average of one journalist is killed every five days. 98 percent of those murdered belong to traditional media and the UNESCO statement singled out Syria and Ukraine as the most dangerous areas, two areas that have dominated the news for a long time.
It is outrageous and totally unacceptable that almost everyone who commits these terrible deeds walks free. Very few are arrested and very few are punished. Fewer than one in ten cases of murder of a journalist are solved and lead to a conviction.
If we want a free and open society, we cannot allow this to continue. The murder of a journalist is an attack on free speech and ultimately on democracy. Journalists must be able to cover major world events. They must be able to examine powers without risking their lives or being kidnapped. Most journalists know the rules. They know how to monitor events such as wars and disasters. Many also have some form of security training but you cannot protect yourself against evil.
All governments should act in the international forums where they are represented. I also believe that it is time to link humanitarian aid to this important issue. Aid can support the development of a free press and a strong public service in the designated countries. Politicians should also ask questions about how freedom of expression and freedom of the press is guaranteed in the countries they visit.
The role of a journalist is to mediate voices, to provide knowledge and to disseminate information. A role that is absolutely essential for a functioning society. For that reason, there are strong forces today that deliberately frighten journalists into silence. We have seen too many examples, in too many countries, of increased hatred, threats and assaults against journalists. The purpose is the same in each case: to intimidate and silence journalists.
In one Swedish survey, one third of editorial offices reported that they had received threats and that employees avoided certain areas of coverage or tasks as a result of these threats. Unfortunately, an international survey would most likely show similar results. This is extremely serious.
It is not only journalists who lose out because perpetrators know that they are rarely punished and usually walk free. Society as a whole is damaged. Important investigations risk never being conducted. Key issues are at risk of never being raised and debated. Important events risk never being covered.
Focusing on the impunity of acts against journalists, as we are doing today, is vital. Attacking a journalist must lead to legal action and punishment. That is the only way to reverse this dismal trend. The alternative is that we have a world where evil is given free rein and where the powers that be can govern and apply their worldview without being investigated or questioned.
We would all lose out.
Director General, Swedish Radio
EBU Board member, member of the jury for the UNESCO Press Freedom Prize and member of INSI's steering committee