'Where journalists are slain and the killers go free'

An ambush of a convoy in South Sudan and the hacking deaths of bloggers in Bangladesh this year propelled the two nations onto the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) Global Impunity Index, which spotlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go unpunished.

Colombia exited the index as fatal violence against journalists receded further into that country's past.

For the first time since CPJ began compiling the index in 2008, Iraq did not claim the title of worst offender, as Somalia edged into that spot. The shift reflects a steady death toll in Somalia, where one or more journalists have been murdered every year over the past decade, and the government has proved unable or unwilling to investigate the attacks.

Iraq's move away from the top spot is based on a number of factors, few of them encouraging; only one conviction has been achieved in Iraq. The Impunity Index examines unsolved murders over the previous decade in which journalism is the confirmed motive. The first couple of years of the Iraq war are no longer covered by the most recent 10-year period, and targeted killings dropped in the second half of the decade compared with the watermark years of 2006 and 2007. More recently, members of the militant group Islamic State have abducted and killed at least two journalists. The group's forceful control of information has to date made it impossible for CPJ to accurately document additional cases and determine the motive.

Islamic State's brutality against journalists is also behind Syria's rise in the index from number five to number three. Since August 2014, militants beheaded three international correspondents, circulating videos of the executions on social media. As in Iraq, the group is believed to be responsible for additional kidnappings and killings of journalists in Syria that CPJ has not been able to confirm. Syria is the world's most dangerous place for journalists, with record numbers of abductions and attacks committed not only by Islamic State but other militant factions as well as forces loyal to the Assad regime.

The Philippines, in fourth place, is the only country among the top five that is not in a state of large-scale armed conflict.

The Impunity Index-which is being released in advance of the second International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, November 2, a day adopted by the United Nations General Assembly-calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a country's population.

For this edition, CPJ examined journalist murders in every nation in the world that took place between September 1, 2005, and August 31, 2015. Only those nations with five or more unsolved cases are included on the index. This year, 14 countries met the index criteria, compared with 13 in the previous edition. Cases are considered unsolved when no convictions have been obtained; cases in which suspects are killed during apprehension or some, but not all, perpetrators are held to justice, are classified as partial impunity and not counted toward the five-case threshold. The total number of cases analysed for this Index is 270.

Colombia, the only country to drop off the index this year, has fewer than five unsolved cases for the time period under examination. Convictions in two journalist murders have taken place there since 2009; both notably brought full justice with the sentencing of the masterminds. But Colombia's improvement is also largely attributed to a decrease nationwide in political violence and to a government protection programme for journalists.

Journalists have nonetheless been threatened on numerous occasions, according to CPJ research. On September 10, an unidentified gunman killed Colombian journalist Flor Alba Núñez Vargas in front of her radio station. Her colleague said Núñez had received threats in connection with her reporting.

Convictions also took place in the last year in three index countries - Russia, Iraq, and Brazil -but in only one case, the 2009 homicide of Russian reporter Anastasiya Baburova, was the person who commissioned the crime jailed.

The addition of South Sudan, where five journalists travelling in a political convoy were ambushed and killed this year, is emblematic of the challenges to achieving justice in areas wracked by war or where potent illegal armed groups actively menace journalists, like Pakistan, 9th on the index, and Nigeria, 13th.

At the same time, more than half the countries on the index are democracies with functioning law enforcement and judicial institutions, including the Philippines, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, and India, which together have let the killers of at least 96 journalists go unpunished over the past decade. The numbers show that the political will needed to prosecute those who silence journalists, many of whom investigate corruption or report critically on local leadership, is absent.

In May this year, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2222 which calls for states to take greater steps to protect journalists in situations of armed conflict and ensure accountability for crimes against them. The resolution is the latest in a series of measures the UN has adopted to address the problem. In its 2014 special report, Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity, CPJ concluded that despite this growing international attention, there has been little progress in terms of the number of convictions.

Among the other findings in the data used to compile CPJ's Impunity Index:

  • The 14 countries on the index combined account for 83 percent of the unsolved murders that took place worldwide during the 10-year period ending August 31, 2015.
  • Nine of the 14 countries on the Impunity Index have been listed each year since CPJ began the annual analysis in 2008, demonstrating the tenacity of the cycle of violence and impunity.
  • Around 96 percent of victims are local reporters. The majority covered politics and corruption in their home countries.
  • Threats often precede killings. In at least four out of every 10 journalist murders, the victims reported receiving threats before they were killed. Threats are rarely investigated by authorities.
  • Almost a third of murdered journalists were taken captive before their death, the majority of whom were tortured - a clear attempt to send the media a message of intimidation.
  • Political groups, including armed factions, are the suspected perpetrators in 46 percent of murder cases, up six percentage points over the 2014 index. Government and military officials are considered the leading suspects in nearly 25 percent of the cases.
  • In only two percent of cases are the masterminds ever apprehended and prosecuted.
  • Half the countries on the Impunity Index - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria - failed to provide any updated information on investigations into journalist killings for the most recent (2014) biannual impunity report of the Director General of UNESCO, the UN agency mandated to promote freedom of expression, demonstrating a lack of international accountability.

For a detailed explanation of CPJ's methodology, click here.

*This story first appeared on the CPJ.org website.