Smother impunity before it can breathe

The IPI Executive Board chose to meet here, in Bratislava, to raise its collective voice to demand justice for Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová.

#allforjan gathering in Bratislava on March 2. #allforjan gathering in Bratislava on March 2. (Source: SITA)

Scott Griffen is Deputy Director of International Press Institute (IPI)

Over the past ten years, 1,119 journalists have lost their lives around the world in connection with their work, according to statistics kept by the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom.

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In Mexico, where the press is regularly targeted in retaliation for coverage of organised crime, corruption and drug smuggling, at least 14 journalists have been murdered in the past year. 11 have been killed in Afghanistan, nine in India and three in The Philippines.

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There are thus many places where the IPI Executive Board – a group of top editors from 21 countries on five continents – could have gathered to mark International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on November 2. And yet the Board chose to meet here, in Bratislava, the capital of an EU member state, and to raise its collective voice to demand justice for Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová.

We know from our experience that impunity for the murders of journalists

Read also: IPI will demand justice in the murder of Kuciak Read more 

perpetuates a cycle of violence that, once put into motion, is difficult to break. This cycle has facilitated the killings of 84 journalists in Mexico alone over the past decade. Despite the ongoing, ceaseless efforts of brave Mexican activists and their allies abroad, Mexican reporters continue to be slaughtered, and the country’s authorities continue to fail in spectacular, scandalous fashion in holding the killers and masterminds accountable. There, as in numerous other countries across the world, fighting impunity often resembles a Sisyphean task, dragged down by the weight of corruption, insufficient expertise, wholly inadequate institutions – and often a simple lack of will.

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It is for this reason that, when a journalist is killed in a country like Slovakia, impunity must be smothered before it is allowed to breathe – before it can gain its murderous foothold and cast its shadow over an entire profession. Before it can embolden others who wish to silence criticism and scrutiny.

It is why IPI joined a coalition of five other international press freedom groups in Malta earlier this month to demand justice for investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia one year after her assassination in a car bombing. Much like Slovakia, Malta has faced its share of press freedom challenges in recent years, ranging from the abuse of libel laws to aggressive anti-media rhetoric propagated by those in power. In both cases, these challenges have now been overshadowed by – or culminated in – an unprecedented taking of human life.

And much like Malta, Slovakia now sits at a crossroads, some eight months after Ján and Martina’s murder. This moment, as IPI reminded gatherers at a vigil this month in Valletta, the Maltese capital, is not just about individual journalists named Daphne Caruana Galizia or Ján Kuciak. It is also about fundamental questions of law and justice. It is about the type of society that a country like Slovakia will be. Will it be a society in which all individuals are equal before the law, in which criminals – whoever they are – are held to account for their wrongs? Or will it be a society in which the scales are tipped toward a powerful few, in which those who order journalists to be murdered in broad daylight are allowed to roam free?

Failure to achieve complete justice for Ján and Martina would be a cruel and unacceptable result for their families. But it also would risk setting a devastating new precedent in Slovakia: That one can kill a journalist right here in an EU member state and get away with it. That precedent is how the cycle of violence starts.

The public cry for justice following Ján and Martina’s murder has been inspiring. It proves that people care, and in the end may well be the crucial ingredient that prevents impunity from taking hold. And, let it be said, the progress made in the criminal investigation so far is welcome and promising.

Unfortunately, IPI’s 70-year experience fighting for press freedom around the globe also shows that impunity is a remarkably stubborn foe. In many cases, the murders of journalists simply aren’t investigated at all. When they are, it is very often only the hired assassins who are found. Identifying, much less jailing, the mastermind is a rarity.

That is why, despite the progress so far, we cannot and must not rest in our demands. Not until every single individual who had a hand in the slaying of Ján and Martina is found and convicted and the metal jail door locks behind them. Until then the risk of impunity looms large. The road to justice remains a long one.

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