How do we overcome impunity?
Well, my bags are packed and all last-minute preparations made for IFEX, which gives me time to make another post. I’m really looking forward to hearing from colleagues from around the world about their struggles against impunity – it’s certainly one of the biggest obstacles to free expression in many parts of the world.
This is especially true of South Asia. In recent weeks we’ve seen our colleagues in Pakistan come out in force to protest the murder of Nasrullah Afridi, who was killed in a car bombing in the city of Peshawar on May 10. Afridi’s death has mobilised journalists around the country, though especially in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, where he was from, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where he had relocated to with his family. He moved to Peshawar after sustained threats on his life and a grenade attack on his home in 2007.
Understandably, his colleagues in Pakistan are outraged that more wasn’t done by authorities to help protect him. The question now is whether they will act to find and punish those responsible for his death. If we look at the track record on killings of journalists in Pakistan, then the outlook isn’t good.
Last year the IFJ ranked Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world for media professionals, with 16 media workers killed. Afridi is the fourth journalist to be killed in Pakistan this year. Of the scores of media workers who have been murdered in Pakistan, only one conviction has ever been recorded – for the high-profile murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Pakistan is only one example, of course. In Sri Lanka, a different set of circumstances conspires to allow the murder and abduction of journalists to go unpunished. The international community was horrified by the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunge on January 8, 2009. Wickrematunge’s posthumous editorial chillingly predicted that investigations into his death would be ineffectual, saying:
In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too.
Almost two and a half years later his words read like a self-fulfilling prophecy – no real progress has been made in investigating his death. The same can be said of the investigations into the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since January 24, 2010.
So how do we address impunity or lack of legal protection in the context of a state under siege and beholden to corrupt interests, such as in the case of Pakistan? Or in the context of an entrenched anti-media regime successful in enforcing silence, which is the case in Sri Lanka?
I don’t have all the answers. But I do think our best chance of doing so is by working together with our partners on the ground, and not giving up our struggle. Concerted international advocacy works, as in the case of J.S. Tissainayagam, who was eventually pardoned. I think it is forums like IFEX that give us the best chance of success.