Freedom from punishment

Maja Vasic-Nikolic

Maja Vasic-Nikolic

min read

01 Freedom from punishment

Impunity, n.: exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss

Example: laws were flouted with impunity

Source: Merriam Webster dictionary

The International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists was established in December 2013 when the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution that, among other things recognises that work of journalists often puts them at specific risk of intimidation, harassment and violence and bearing in mind that impunity for attacks against journalists constitutes one of the main challenges to strengthening the protection of journalists. The date was chosen in commemoration of the assassination of Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont in Mali on 2 November 2013.

As stated by the UN,  the landmark resolution condemns all attacks and violence against journalists and media workers, urges Member States to prevent violence against them and to ensure accountability, bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against journalists and media workers, and ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies.

As a result, every year, by the end of October and beginning of November the public is reminded of the fact that 87% of killings of journalists between 2006 and 2020 remain unsolved. UNESCO’s Observatory of killed journalists recorded 455 killings of journalists between 2016 and 2021. It reports that in 2021, the majority of deaths happened in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean. The last decade hundreds of different actions aimed at straightening the judiciary were implemented throughout the world, yet the number of solved cases does not seem to be decreasing.

In a significant number of cases, there is a reasonable doubt that the killings were ordered, even implemented by the state, becoming a tool of oppression.

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Assassinations of journalists in the Western Balkans

The culture of impunity is often associated with authoritarian regimes. But, as data shows it is present in so-called emerging democracies, such are the countries of the Western Balkans. The region has its own unfortunate record.

Serbia’s legacy includes the State Security organised murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija in 1999 and while legal proceedings are underway, and members of the State Security members found guilty twice, there is still no verdict. The mastermind who ordered the execution is still unknown. Unlike Ćuruvija case that reached the court, the cases of Radislava Dada Vujasinovic, murdered in 1994, and Milan Pantić, murdered in 2001, are still at a pre-investigative stage. 

Montenegro’s Duško Jovanović was assassinated with an automatic rifle in 2004. One person was sentenced to 19 years imprisonment but provided no information about who was behind the attack. On Oct 17, 2022, news came that a protected witness would give statement that will bring new light to this crime, and likely to connect it with the state.

Some may say that there have been no murders of journalists in the WB Jovanovic’s death, only unsuccessful attempts, all of which have one thing in common – they are yet to be solved:

In 2007, Montenegrin journalist Tufik Softić was brutally beaten up in Montenegro. Six years later his car, parked in front of the family home, was bombed. Softic lived with police protection from 2014 till 2016 when it was withdrawn. The journalist sued Montenegro for failing to protect his rights and enabling obstruction by the judiciary. That case is also yet to be solved.

In 2018 journalist Olivera Lakić was wounded when she was shot in front of the house where she lived in Montenegro. In 2021 a policeman was arrested, under suspicion of being involved in the shooting. So far, no progress was made by the judiciary.

In 2007, one of two bombs exploded on the window seal of the Serbian journalist Dejan Anastasijević. What saved Anastasijević and his wife was the fact that they were in bed at the moment of the explosion. Faced with a lack of interest by the police, Anastasijević investigated this attack on his own providing clues to who may have been behind it. Police failed to act upon his findings, and the public is yet to find out who placed the bomb and who ordered it. Anastasijevic passed away in 2019.

In 2018, Serbian journalist Milan Jovanović and his wife woke up to find their home engulfed in flames. They escaped, but the house became uninhabitable. Based on the investigation, the president of the local self-government was charged with ordering the arson, and two men for executing it.  After two years of proceedings, the court annulled the verdict that found them all guilty and ordered retrial which is underway.

In late 2020 the Albanian journalist Eldion Ndreka was with his family, including two young daughters, when an explosion took place at their home’s front door. The incident is yet to be resolved.

These attacks targeted specific journalists due to their work, but the region bears more scares – including that of 16 media professionals who lost their lives in the NATO bombardment of the public service broadcaster building in 1999. As in other cases, this one will be solved only when the information about who the person who ordered media professionals to stay in the building knowing it will be attacked is identified. The national investigation is likely to lead to the state itself. On the other hand, the precedent of declaring a media outlet a legitimate target in times of war remains highly questionable.

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Intimidation – verbal and physical

Attacks on lives of journalists and other media professionals, luckily, remain rare in the region these days. Some journalists argue that there are better ways to influence the lives of journalists in order to deter them from informing in the public interest. These ways include physical attacks, death threats to journalists, but also their families, and other verbal threats and content aimed to intimidate them.

These incidents, whether those are threats or actual attacks, also seem to indicate a high level of impunity in the Western Balkans. Safe Journalists Network registers such incidents in its database and issues annual reports about the level of media freedoms and journalists’ safety. Its most recent report, providing a comparative analysis of the situation in the region states:

Verbal threats and harassment, but more worryingly, threats to lives and threats to physical safety against journalists, are still the most prominent types of open pressure towards journalists and their media organization. The frequency of this misconduct was highest in Serbia both in 2020 and 2021 but there was arguably a high number of these types in almost all the rest of the countries in the region.

The report goes on to provide data on numbers of incidents, verbal and physical, against journalists in the region and by country painting a grim picture and suggesting that there is a lack of political will to secure an efficient and independent judiciary that would find and sanction the perpetrators.

Database maintained by the Safe Journalists Network collates information based on specific criteria.

By the end of 2021, there were 1074 registered incidents, 242 of which constitute an actual physical attack. In only 29 cases  - or 12% - the perpetrator was convicted. 

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Learn how to protect yourself

If you are a journalist who reports from peaceful gatherings or protests that may turn violent, take the course Thomson Media prepared for you. Western Balkans - Staying safe covering protests for journalists self-paced course aims to prepare you for unpredicted situations – from what to wear to how to keep your mobile phone data safe. Check language-specific courses here: 

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Female journalists under attack

The database also provides information about the number of incidents against female journalists noted in the database - 239 (male:  531, group: 303).  While men are targeted more, or they are more likely to report it, women journalists face a different challenge. Threats they receive involve threats of rape and murder, not only of the journalists but their children. They are being stalked offline and online, subjected to smear and hate campaigns of higher intensity than their male colleagues, and are left to suffer alone, as BIRN investigation shows.

By the end of 2021, the number of registered actual physical attacks on female journalists in the Safe Journalists database is 51, only 3 of which ended with the conviction of perpetrators.

Testimonies of female journalists indicate that in the process of reporting attacks they are being victimised again by the authorities, or plainly not protected at all until public pressure is accumulated.

If you are a female journalist, make sure to check Thomson Media WhatsApp course for the safety of female journalists. It includes two inseparable modules - the safety of journalists in real life and safety of journalists in the online environment. If you are a male journalist, check it as well – it contains important information that can help you and your female colleagues when facing threats online or offline. Just follow the link to the course relevant to your country: 

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Impunity –  effects

Reflecting on the situation in the Western Balkans in 2021, the Safe Journalists Report points to an increadibly disturbing rise of threats to the lives and physical safety of journalists in 2021 in Serbia, but also in Croatia and Kosovo. They are an indication of a level of lawlessness which in its vacuum creates an atmosphere of impunity, having in mind that most of these threats are made by structures in power or by people who are openly or tacitly protected by power. The effect of these manifestations also creates a culture of fear in the midst of the journalist’s community resulting in self-censorship which devastates the public sphere. 

While the comments are related to the specific – Western Balkan - region, their warning is relevant globally. This is why the issue of impunity for crimes against journalists should be addressed daily in every country in the world.

In July 2021 the result of a public inquiry into the assassination Daphne Caruana Galizia found the state bears responsibility for her death. As reported by Times of Malta, in the inquiry concluded that a culture of impunity was created from the highest echelons of power within Castille, singling out former prime minister Joseph Muscat for enabling this culture of impunity and found his entire cabinet collectively responsible for their inaction in the lead up to the assassination.

The recent turn in the Caruan Galizia murder case show that the international boost to national pressure can yield results. Whether this case will be fully closed remains to be seen, but citizens around the world should recognise that reporting in public interest is crucial for their livelihood. This fact is the same both in democracies that consider themselves established, as well as those in process of establishment and striving for change.

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The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia – End of impunity in Malta?

On October 16, 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated. The car she was in exploded. A bomb was put in it. While the last Caruana Galizia efforts to expose corruption within the Maltese government had been tied to the Panama Papers, her work had included variety of topics of public interest, almost always leading to organised crime and corruption. Her violent death caused protests in Malta and Europe alike. Campaigns by her family, supported by human rights organisations and journalists’ associations continued. After an unexpected turn earlier this year, when two brothers accused of murdering Caruana Galizia had changed their plea to ‘guilty’ in an exchange for a lenient sentence, the court sentenced them to 40 years in prison.  The third man admitted charges in February 2021 and received 15 years sentence.

Robert Abela, Malta’s Prime Minister described the conviction an important step forward, to deliver justice in a case that represents a dark chapter in Malta’s history  and reiterated the government’s commitment to deliver full justice to the Caruana Galizia family, and to the Maltese people.

About the author:

Maja Vasic-Nikolic

Maja Vasić-Nikolić worked at the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia from 2006 to 2021. During her work at IJAS Maja coordinated the Association’s projects and advocacy efforts related to increasing safety of journalists and levels of media freedoms in Serbia and, through Association regional projects, the Western Balkans.

Author

  • Maja Vasic-Nikolic

    Maja Vasić-Nikolić worked at the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia from 2006 to 2021. During her work at IJAS Maja coordinated the Association’s projects and advocacy efforts related to increasing safety of journalists and levels of media freedoms in Serbia and, through Association regional projects, the Western Balkans.

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