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Home > Public Resources > Trauma Blog > 2015 - October > Media Matters: Breaking the Law at Will: Impunity Endangers Journalists

Media Matters: Breaking the Law at Will: Impunity Endangers Journalists

October 27, 2015

Tara Singh Hayer was a Canadian journalist who wrote for and published the Indo-Canadian Times, the largest and oldest circulating Punjabi weekly newspaper in Canada. After the 1985 Air India bombing, he became an avid critic of Sikh fundamentalist violence both in Canada and India. He made an important contribution in strengthening and promoting press freedom through his courage to speak out against their terrorist activities (Committee to Protect Journalists, n.d.). 

Subsequently, his life was threatened numerous times; he survived an attempt on his life in 1988, which partially paralyzed him, and ten years later, he was shot dead in the garage of his home in Vancouver, BC. Although police had connected suspects in the attack to militant international organizations working for an independent Sikh homeland in India, there remains no suspect charged in his murder (Bolan, 2012, 2015). For this horrendous act, the person or persons responsible for killing Mr. Hayer have been free of punishment or consequences for the last 17 years since his death. 

This freedom from criminal repercussions reflects a culture of impunity where perpetrators know there is a high possibility of escaping punishment when they intimidate, threaten, kidnap, torture, and even murder journalists in order to censor free expression of the press and deny the public’s right to the information journalists are investigating and seeking to expose. Witchel (2014) discusses the annual Impunity Index of countries where murder cases involving journalists are most likely to go unpunished. For countries to be included on the Index, there needs to be at least five journalists murdered without the perpetrator(s) being charged or convicted; there were 13 countries on the Index last year. Additionally, Witchel notes that 96 percent of murdered journalists are local, journalists are usually threatened before they are murdered, and 20 percent of journalists are captured and tortured before they are killed. 

Threats to free press. Threats to individual journalists have a lasting impact on the broader community as journalists become limited in what they report due to violence, or threats of violence. When members of the press are specifically targeted for kidnap or assassination because of what they are reporting, a climate of fear is created. This fear is exacerbated when a staggering 90 percent of cases result in no convictions, and are sometimes not even investigated (Witchel, 2014). The silence that succeeds this type of terrorizing ultimately leads to censorship and an uninformed public (Simon, 2014). Having a free and open press is instrumental in a healthy democracy, which ensures transparency and accountability in government (Karlekar & Becker, 2014; Norris, 2006). 

Silencing journalistic work also means the loss of an important tool in fighting against threats to a strong society. According to the Community to Protect Journalists (CPJ), most journalists who have been murdered were reporting on the topics of politics, corruption, and war, often with a focus on local government, organized crime, or rebel groups (Witchel, 2014). A lack of credible uncensored information about these issues threatens the well-being of citizens within that country, and freedom of information for citizens around the world. 

Changing role of journalists. According to Downie (2009), there has been a significant decrease in staff jobs for professional news reporters, with fewer news organizations supporting foreign correspondents or foreign news bureaus. These newsroom cutbacks have led to more freelance journalists looking for contract work (Smyth, 2010). 

Although freelance journalists are valued when they have entry into stories that cannot be accessed by staff journalists, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to be gathering news in certain countries experiencing conflict, corruption, or instability (e.g., Iraq, Somalia, Philippines). Editors are more reluctant to send freelance journalists or commission a freelancer they do not know because of the financial risk (insurance, liability, expenses), especially in an emergency in a conflict zone (e.g., kidnapping, assault) (de Pear, 2012). Despite this, freelance journalists are feeling more pressure and are taking more risks to get the story. 

Smyth emphasized how more journalists are being killed than ever before; where recognition as a journalist used to keep one safe, recognition as a journalist now, makes one a target. Safety is an increasingly challenging problem because journalists are targets for militants and rebels. More distressing is how, “Government officials of one kind or another have killed nearly as many journalists as terrorists . . . if one adds government-backed paramilitary groups to the list, government officials along with their paramilitary allies have murdered more journalists than terrorists and other anti-government groups” (p. 43, Smyth, 2010). 

In this regard, Smyth underscores how 9 out of 10 cases of murdered journalists worldwide have seen little or no prosecution of perpetrators, despite the Geneva Conventions (ICRC, 1949) stressing that in times of war it is a war crime to target civilians; journalists are protected persons under the Conventions and should be safe from violent attacks unless they are embedded with a military force. Even more distressing is how online journalists (e.g., bloggers, social media) are subject to threats, attacks, and incarceration in certain countries (e.g., Egypt, Iran). The culture of impunity must be addressed in order to protect our fundamental right to free expression and access to information.

Safety of journalists. While journalism is becoming an increasingly dangerous profession as a result the changing roles of journalists, research conducted by the CPJ demonstrates that most journalists who die on assignment do not die by accident, but are specifically targeted because of what they are writing (Committee to Protect Journalist, 2015). Between 2005-2014 the CPJ reports that 131 journalists were killed when caught in the crossfire during combat, and 93 were killed on particularly dangerous assignments. Comparatively, during that same time period 364 journals were the victims of targeted murders. While larger media organizations can afford to offer safety training to staff, it is less available for freelance journalists; thus, organizations concerned about their safety offer programs to provide bursaries for hazardous environment courses (Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, 2015).

Awareness and action. Internationally, there is increasing distress over threats to press freedom, freedom of expression, and a lack of justice for journalists (and their families) who have been threatened, kidnapped, tortured, or killed as a result of reporting on politics, corruption, and warfare. Annually since 1993, the World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) is held to remind governments about their duty to uphold the rights of citizens to free expression, evaluate the state of press freedom, defend media against attacks, and pay tribute to journalists who lost their lives in the line of duty (UNESCO, 2014). 

These concerns have motivated the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to initiate the United Nations Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, and for the United Nations General Assembly to adopt a resolution on journalists’ safety (UNESCO, 2012). Further efforts have been made by the United Nations to make resolutions for actions and guidelines for member nations to protect journalists and deal with the culture of impunity, specifically to protect freedom of speech, access to independent media and information, and the public’s right to government data (United Nations, 2013). 

Additionally, there are many organizations lead by journalists to ensure their access to resources that may help to create awareness and bolster safety within the journalism community. For example, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma offers resources for journalists including articles, booklets, awards, training, workshops, and research data; the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma offers awards, online resources, workshops/conferences, fosters research, and connects journalists to needed support; the Committee to Protect Journalists offers access to data and research about journalists’ safety, resources and assistance for journalists in need, action for journalists’ safety and advocacy in the fight against impunity, and the latest information for journalists about what is happening worldwide that may affect their safety; the Rory Peck Trust offers awards for training, assistance to freelance journalists and their families, promotes the safety and welfare of journalists, and links journalists to resources such as insurance, digital security, and professional development; and the Frontline Club offers a meeting place for journalists, programs and lectures, workshops and training, awards and funding for a self-help group for conflict freelancers.

It is essential that mental health workers be aware of these issues when working with clients in the journalism field. Attention to personal experiences of this kind, or the possible loss of, or relationships with affected colleagues is imperative. Impunity is a critical issue for clients silenced by threats or violence.


About the Authors


Patrice Keats, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education (Counseling Psychology program) at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada.

Jen Vishloff, MA, is a registered clinical counselor and a researcher in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 


References


Bolan, K. (2012, November). Assassinated journalist Tara Singh Hayer mourned 14 years after death. Vancouver Sun, retrieved from http://www.vancouversun.com/life/Assassinated+journalist+Tara+Singh+Hayer+mourned+years+after+death/7567608/story.html?__lsa=8839-5929 

Bolan, K. (2015, June). Families still suffering 30 years after deadly Air India bombing. Vancouver Sun, retrieved from http://blogs.vancouversun.com/2015/06/23/families-still-suffering-30-years-after-deadly-air-india-bombing/
Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma (2015). Current projects and events: Forum Freelance Fund. Retrieved from http://www.journalismforum.ca/projects

Committee to Protect Journalists (n.d.). Journalists killed, Canada: Tara Singh Hayer. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/killed/1998/tara-singh-hayer.php

Committee to Protect Journalists (2015). Database of murdered journalists since 1992. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/killed/
de Pear, B. (2012, August). On the Media--Going it alone as a foreign correspondent (Ben de Pear). London, UK: Frontline Club. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pzq_U9EWOKw

Downie, L. (2009, September). The future of journalism. Paper presented at John S. Knight Fellowships Reunion and Conference at Stanford University, Stanford: CA.

ICRC (1949). The Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross. Retrieved from https://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-0173.pdf

Joel Simon (2014, September). Open government is unsustainable without a free press. The Committee to Protect Journalists. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/blog/2014/09/open-government-is-unsustainable-without-a-free-pr.php

Karlekar D. K. and Becker, L. B. (2014). By the Numbers: Tracing the Statistical Correlation Between Press Freedom and Democracy. Centre for International Media Assistance. Retrieved from http://www.cima.ned.org/publication/by_the_numbers___tracing_the_statistical_correlation_between_press_freedom_and_democracy/

Logan, K. (2012, August). On the Media--Going it alone as a foreign correspondent (Kitty Logan). London, UK: Frontline Club. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pzq_U9EWOKw

Norris, P. (2006, May 1-2). The role of free press in promoting democratization, good governance, and human development. Paper for UNESCO meeting on World Press Freedom Day: Media, Development, and Poverty Eradication. Retrieved from http://www.gsdrc.org/document-library/the-role-of-the-free-press-in-promoting-democratization-good-governance-and-human-development/

Smyth, F. (2010). Murdering with Impunity: The rise in terror tactics against news reporters. Harvard International Review, 32(3), 41-45.

UNESCO (2012). Communication and information: UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/freedom-of-expression/safety-of-journalists/un-plan-of-action

UNESCO (2014). World Press Freedom Day: About World Press Freedom Day. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/events/prizes-and-celebrations/celebrations/international-days/world-press-freedom-day/about-world-press-freedom-day/

United Nations (2013). A new global partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development. Retrieved from http://www.post2015hlp.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/UN-Report.pdf

Witchel, E. (2014, April). Getting away with murder: CPJ’s 2014 Global Impunity Index spotlights countries where journalists are slain and the killers go free. Retrieved from https://cpj.org/x/5a16