Sala de Prensa

Junio 1999
Año II, Vol. 2




Unpunished crimes against journalists

In 1991, the General Conference of UNESCO recommended that the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaim 3 May 'World Press Freedom Day', for the purpose of establishing the fundamental principles of such freedom. Throughout the world, this day, coinciding as it does with the Declaration of Windhoek of 3 May 1991, provides an opportunity of informing the public about violations of freedom of expression and of recalling that journalists daily brave death and imprisonment in discharging their information role. It is also a day of reflection on professional ethics and the importance of press freedom, and a day of support for free and independent media.

This year, World Press Freedom Day is devoted to an extremely serious and disturbing problem, which is that most of the crimes committed against journalists and other information professionals go unpunished. Apart from the fact that murder, arrest and threats against journalists represent a serious violation of freedom of expression - a cornerstone of democracy - the impunity enjoyed in respect of virtually all those crimes aggravates the situation. In the knowledge that they are safe from prosecution, their perpetrators have no misgivings about repeating their crimes.

Such impunity may take several forms. It is sometimes merely due to a lack of interest on the part of the authorities in resolving the crimes, which means that scant resources are allocated to the investigation and that inquiries are soon dropped. But impunity is even more serious when stemming from a deliberate endeavour to hide the truth.

The record for 1998 is again a bad one, with at least 20 journalists killed in the course of duty. This brings the total to more than 500 journalists assassinated in the past ten years and nearly all these crimes remain unpunished. To these crimes must be added countless instances of violence against information professionals, whether 'arbitrary arrests', 'threats', 'aggression', 'harassment' or even 'torture'. Latin America and the armed conflict zones are the most hazardous regions for the journalist's trade.

In the face of this ultimate censorship represented by the killing of a journalist, the silence that may surround such abject acts must be broken. UNESCO has therefore introduced a principle of systematic reaction to such violence, resulting in public condemnation. For all these acts are solely aimed at restricting freedom of expression and the right to information.

In November 1997, the General Conference of UNESCO, in its awareness of the urgent nature of the question of unpunished crimes against journalists, decided to react and to adopt, at its 29th session, a resolution condemning 'violence against journalists'. It sought to alert governments and international and regional organizations to this question and so to combat this veritable 'culture of impunity'.

The text 'calls upon Member States to take the necessary measures to [...] adopt the principle that there should be no statute of limitations for crimes [...] perpetrated to prevent the exercise of freedom of information [...]; [...] to prosecute and sentence those who instigate the assassination of persons exercising the right to freedom of expression; [to ensure that] the persons responsible for offences against journalists [...] must be judged by civil and/or ordinary courts'.

In 1986, the assassination of Guillermo Cano, a Colombian editor, is significant in regard to unpunished crimes against journalists. He was a victim of the conflicts between various Mafia groups whose criminal activities and hold on Colombian society he relentlessly denounced. Guillermo Cano was shot dead at the entrance to the offices of his newspaper, El Espectador. The magistrates handling the case were subjected to threats and some of them were assassinated for not yielding to the pressures. The presumed culprits have managed to block the investigation and trial for many years.

For all these reasons, UNESCO has decided to make unpunished crimes against journalists the main theme of World Press Freedom Day in 1999. In order to increase public awareness of this crucial issue, UNESCO has entered into partnership with the chief professional media organizations with a view to studying impunity in various world regions. Seven of these organizations have examined and investigated an act of violence against a journalist. Summaries of the investigations, are provided in this file, as follows:

The case of Metin Goktepe submitted by Article XIX
The case of Ferdinand Reyes submitted by the World Association of Newspapers
The case of Nechi Lyimo submitted by the International Federation of Journalists
The case of Guillermo Cano submitted by the Cano Foundation
The case of Anatoly Levin-Utkin submitted by the International Press Institute
The case of Tahar Djaout submitted by Reporters Sans Frontieres
The cases of Zaqueo de Oliveira and Aristeu Guida da Silva submitted by the Inter-American Press Association

(The authors are responsible for the choice and the presentation of the facts contained in this file and for the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.)

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