This year marks Media Defence’s 15th anniversary. To celebrate this milestone, we are looking at the ways in which freedom of expression has been threatened around the world, and how we have sought to protect it.
Every year, journalists are subjected to violence for carrying out their essential work. Journalism stands as a cornerstone for the protection of human rights, and the consolidation of democracy, yet it remains a dangerous and too often deadly profession. The impact of violence on journalists and their families goes beyond the immediate harm and can cause lasting physical and psychological distress. Such blatant violations of human rights, coupled with the frequent lack of accountability for crimes against journalists, create an environment where individuals are more likely to self-censor, fearing potential repercussions.
Journalists who are critical of powerful actors or those reporting on conflicts, corruption, and organised crime are especially vulnerable. This heightened risk has a far-reaching impact on public access to accurate and crucial information concerning these issues. Protecting journalist safety, ensuring accountability for violence against them and preserving the role of a free press as a public watchdog is imperative.
“When journalists are targeted, societies as a whole pay a price. And I am deeply troubled by the growing number of attacks and the culture of impunity.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres
A growing issue
In the last few years there has been a sharp escalation in violence against journalists. This violence takes many forms, including torture, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, intimidation or harassment, and threats. Both online and off-line attacks continue to grow -journalist imprisonment is at a record high, while online violence, particularly against women journalists, becomes increasingly widespread.
Worryingly, the last two years have also shown a sharp rise in killings of journalists, especially as a result of war. The International Federation of Journalists have reported that 94 journalists and media workers, including 9 women, have been killed in 2023.
The war between Israel and Gaza has been more deadly for journalists than any single conflict since the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) began recording these numbers in 1990. IFJ noted that 72% of journalists killed worldwide in 2023 have been killed in the Gaza conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has resulted in the region becoming the most dangerous place to work as a journalist in Europe.
Outside of war zones, journalists covering corruption and crime are most at risk of kidnap, attack or death. Mexico is the deadliest country for journalists outside of a war zone, with 13 killed for their work in 2022 and five slain so far in 2023. On the 29th of November, four journalists were shot and wounded in southern Guerrero state marking one of the largest mass attacks on reporters in Mexico since 2012.
All the while, impunity for violence against journalists remains staggeringly high, with the murder of journalists going unresolved in nine out of ten cases.
Litigating cases of violence against journalists
How can we work towards creating a safer environment for journalists and ensuring that justice is secured when crimes are committed against them?
One way to increase pressure on states to improve the situation for journalists, ensure adequate redress and reduce violence is through legal action. Since our foundation in 2008, Media Defence have been litigating and financially supporting cases of violence against journalists before domestic and regional courts across the world. We do so to challenge the culture of impunity in which state and non-state actors commit these attacks.
According to international human rights law any attack on a person because of the exercise of their freedom of opinion or expression is not justifiable under any circumstances. States have obligations to address and prevent violence against journalists. When an attack on a journalist occurs, authorities also have a responsibility to take effective steps to investigate and prosecute that crime and ensure that proper redress is provided. It is therefore often possible to use these obligations to improve the situation for journalists through legal mechanisms.
Case Study: Tufik Softić
Tufik Softić had been working as a radio reporter for Radio Berane and as a correspondent for the daily newspaper Republika when he was seriously injured in a violent attack that took place outside his family home in November 2007. The attack was allegedly related to the publication of an article detailing the criminal activities of a group involved in drug trafficking in northern Montenegro. Nearly six years later, in August 2013, Tufik Softić was targeted again – an explosive device was detonated in front of his home while he was inside. Despite escaping injury in the second attack, the attack posed a serious threat to Tufik Softić’s life. The authorities failed to conduct an effective investigation into either attack.
Media Defence, in partnership with Montenegrin organisation, Human Rights Action, supported Softić’s lawyer, Dalibor Tomović, in filing the case at the Constitutional Court of Montenegro (The Court). In 2017, we welcomed a landmark decision by the Constitutional Court of Montenegro, which unanimously found that Softić’s right to life had been violated due to the ineffective investigation into his attempted murder. It’s the first time in its history that the Constitutional Court of Montenegro has awarded compensation for the moral harm caused by a violation of human rights. The decision of the Constitutional Court, which emphasised the importance of conducting prompt and diligent investigations into attacks on journalists, was highly important for the protection of human rights in Montenegro. It served as an important step in the fight against the impunity shown towards attacks on journalists.
Case Study: Samuel Wazizi
Media Defence are working with local counsel in seeking accountability for the detention and death of Cameroonian journalist Samuel Wazizi. Wazizi, whose legal name is Samuel Ajiekah Abuwe, was arrested and held incommunicado in August 2019 in connection with his critical reporting on the government’s handling of the so-called Anglophone crisis in Cameroon – an ongoing armed conflict between Cameroon Armed Forces and Ambazonian separatist groups.
The fact of Wazizi’s death in custody was kept hidden by the authorities for almost a year. After months of uncertainty, the Cameroon government eventually admitted that Wazizi died shortly after his arrest, alleging that it was the “result of severe sepsis”. This narrative was widely criticised after reports alleging signs of torture on Wazizi’s body were released. RSF said Wazizi’s death in detention, “is the worst crime against a journalist in the past 10 years in Cameroon”.
Since his arrest Wazizi’s lawyer, supported by Media Defence, had been trying to establish his whereabouts and the legal basis of his detention. The government had fiercely resisted those efforts at every stage of the various legal proceedings brought. A full and thorough investigation into Wazizi’s death is an imperative, and the government must hold to account all of those responsible for his death and for the fact that Wazizi’s family was kept in the dark about his whereabouts and his death for over ten months.
Case Study: Jineth Bedoya
On 25 May 2000, Jineth Bedoya Lima travelled to Colombia’s infamous Modelo prison, intending to follow up a lead. A well-known investigative reporter, Bedoya had received information about arms sales between Colombia’s paramilitary groups and state officials. Before she could enter the prison, however, Bedoya was abducted at gunpoint. She was drugged, beaten and sexually assaulted before being tied up and dumped hundreds of kilometres away. This was done, she was told, to send a “message to the press”.
Despite Bedoya working tirelessly – emerging as a leading advocate against sexual violence in Colombia – authorities continuously failed to carry out any effective investigation into the crimes against her or prosecute those responsible. The case became synonymous with the impunity that plagues Colombia’s justice system – her quest for justice took more than two decades.
In 2021, Bedoya’s case finally reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the Court). Media Defence filed an amicus curiae brief. Media Defence’s partner in Colombia, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) also led on the case.
The Court’s subsequent landmark judgment in 2021 sets key standards for the protection of women journalists. The Court considered that, at the time of the abduction and sexual assault, Jineth Bedoya faced a heightened risk as a woman and a journalist. Further, the Court established that the government failed in assessing and implementing protective measures to address the specific risks she was facing as a woman journalist.
This decision in this case had a considerably far-reaching outcome in terms of the prevention of violence against journalists, and specifically women journalists. The Court established that States must implement an adequate framework to prevent risks and strengthen institutions that are tasked with combatting violence against women. In particular, the Court ordered the Colombian Government to set up a fund to implement programs to prevent, protect and assist women journalists who are victims of gendered violence, as well as to guarantee the safety of women journalists facing risks when carrying out their work.
Case Study: Oleh Baturin
On the 12th March 2022, Oleh Baturin, a Ukrainian journalist in the occupied region of Kherson, set out to meet an acquaintance at the bus station in the city of Kakhovka. Upon arrival at the station Baturin was abducted by Russian state agents. Over the following 8 days, he was held captive, tortured, interrogated about his journalistic activities, humiliated and threatened with execution and mutilation.
Baturin, who works as the editor-in-chief of the Kherson regional newspaper Novy Den (“New Day”), has reported extensively on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, including in Crimea, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and following Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. On the 1st of March 2022, just 11 days before his kidnapping, Baturin had reported on his Facebook page that Russian forces had interfered with the access to the website of Novy Den.
In July of 2022 Media Defence and Baturin’s local legal counsel filed his case at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), against Russia. The case argues that Russia violated Baturin’s fundamental rights including the prohibition on torture, the right to liberty and security and the right to freedom of expression. Despite the rights and protections journalists are entitled to while reporting on armed conflicts, attacks against journalists in the context of war are often met with impunity. By filing this case at the ECtHR, Media Defence hopes to challenge this trend. The outcome of this case has the potential to be significant in seeking accountability for targeted attacks on journalists reporting on conflict by State actors.
The problem of violence against journalists, and impunity for such crimes, is a complex and pernicious one. Pursuing strategic litigation at regional and international courts is one of the most effective tools in our fight to protect freedom of expression. By helping to develop significant legal precedents, we can contribute to bringing about long-term changes to legislation and practices, often across multiple jurisdictions simultaneously.
When using legal action to address violence against journalists, it can be useful to pursue cases where state actors themselves engage in violence, as demonstrated in the Baturin and Wazizi cases. However, since international standards clearly impose obligations on States to take action in response to violence committed by non-State actors as well, litigation can also be an option for challenging government inaction in the face of such attacks, as observed in the cases of Bedoya and Softić.
Even in instances where a court decision is not as far-reaching as we would like the exercise is still necessary. Bringing cases before a court can act as a way of documenting human rights abuses and raising awareness about impunity for crimes against journalists in the respective region or country, paving the way for future legal challenges or campaigning.
Alongside our strategic litigation work, we are investing in our role as a capacity builder, sharing expertise through our partner organisation model and through our regional litigation surgeries. We recently partnered with the Research and Training Center Propuesta Cívica, funding their defence of journalists and freedom of expression in Mexico. These initiatives complement the strategic litigation we undertake, helping connect and engage local actors to challenge cases of violence against journalists with our support.
Fostering local capacity is the best way to improve journalist safety long term, as the threats to journalists develop. We will continue to challenge cases of violence where they occur, and fight for adequate redress. We will do this in the belief that strong legal precedents are essential to protecting journalist safety. However, we will need to continue to adapt and diversify our approach to counter the threats as they evolve.
If you are a journalist in need of support as a result of your reporting, please click here.
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