Following a conference in Beirut earlier this year the International Freedom of Expression Exchange – a network of human rights and free speech groups with representatives on all five continents — declared November 23 the International Day to End Impunity. Impunity is a legalistic word that essentially means “to escape punishment.” In the lexicon of modern human rights it is used to describe situations in which serious crimes can be committed in the knowledge that they will not be investigated or brought to trial. When criminals or corrupt authorities can intimidate, assault or murder their opponents without fear of prosecution, they are said to do so with impunity.
November 23 was chosen to mark the fourth anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines. On that day 57 people, including 32 journalists were killed, execution style. The trial, which is currently underway has been hampered by strategic lawyering – time-consuming technicalities, complicated interventions – and has been recently overshadowed by a leading defendant’s offer to disclose inside information about electoral fraud in the province, and about kickbacks from government projects. This contempt for the legal process is one of the hallmarks of countries in which a culture of impunity is well established.
On October 7, Russia marked the fifth anniversary of the murder of the renowned investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Widely admired for her fearless independence, apparent whether she was reporting on the war in Chechnya, or political manoeuvring in Moscow, Politkovskaya appears to have been murdered by a well organized conspiracy. After a series of high profile arrests and inconclusive trials her murder remains unsolved – in August the Russians announced that a former police official had been arrested in connection with the murder, but only time will show whether this will make any difference. In November 2003, after an assassin narrowly failed to kill one of her colleagues, Politkovskaya famously wondered whether “journalism is worth dying for” especially when the public for whom the journalists are endangering themselves often seem so indifferent to the news.
It is probably in Mexico, however, that the consequences of impunity are most striking. The Calderon administration’s drug war continues to exact a heavy toll on the citizenry – to date more than 40,000 Mexicans have died in the violence, including dozens of journalists. But there is little hope that more than a tiny fraction of those responsible for this catastrophic violence will ever be processed by the courts. Three months ago a report by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) reported that: “For every 100 crimes committed in Mexico, only three are charged, fewer than two come before a judge. Perpetrators get away with murder.” This is not news to the drug cartels, nor to the state agents that one prominent human rights group claims are responsible for up to two out of every three attacks on the press.
Mexican journalists who cover the perilous intersection of politics and narcotrafficking are said to receive phone calls that offer a choice between Plomo o plata — lead or silver, bribery and collusion or death by bullet. Many who ignore the threat have been assaulted or murdered, often barbarically – severed limbs, decapitation – to discourage further independence and truth-telling. Understandably the press has been cowed into silence in some of Mexico’s most dangerous regions where near total impunity now means that widespread violence goes unreported. It has become next to impossible for outsiders to accurately assess the security situation within large parts of Mexico, and equally difficult for the government to credibly assert that its military campaign against the drug cartels is working. Beyond these practical consequences there is also the incalculable problem of a civil society that can no longer communicate in the absence of a free press.
The shadow of impunity extends to many other countries — Sri Lanka, Somalia, Iraq, to name but a few – and its eradication presents unique challenges in each case. But even peaceful countries can learn from the hard lessons in the Philippines, Mexico and Russia. A free press is like a keystone species in ecology, and whenever journalists are threatened, muzzled, disappeared or murdered, the wider society suffers manifold losses. The ultimate lesson of impunity, and the silence that it imposes on subjects that any functioning democracy must debate, is that, contrary to proverbial wisdom, what you don’t know can harm you.