“Impunity is an assault on journalists, the public and the foundations of free and independent journalism. At stake is the communicative basis of society itself.”

Written by Professor Jackie Harrison, the head of the Journalism Studies Department at the University of Sheffield and chairholder of the UNESCO Chair on media freedom, journalism safety and the issue of impunity.

In its 2018 worldwide round-up of deadly violence and abusive treatment of journalists Reporters Without Borders concluded that ‘figures have risen in all categories. Murders, imprisonment, hostage-taking and enforced disappearances have all increased. Journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018’. If that were not bad enough, those who attack journalists most often do so with impunity, a problem recognised worldwide and marked every 2nd  of November by the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against JournalistsIn conditions of impunity, journalists have the added burden of knowing that the institutions and infrastructures that should protect them and investigate and prosecute the crimes against them are corrupted or absent.  Their safety becomes their own responsibility. Where there is impunity journalists feel helpless, isolated and fearful and this is often accompanied by the inescapability of self-censorship. They find themselves no longer protected as journalists and no longer protected as citizens because they are journalists – making it all the easier to cast them with impunity as an outlaw or an enemy.  

Impunity is about much more than committing murder and getting away with it. It is the establishment of a climate in which other violent physical attacks such as torture, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, deprivation of liberty, threats to families, harassment, online abuse and death threats, attacks on professional reputations, confiscation of and damage to equipment and property, financial sanctions, spreading  smears and false news to discredit and isolate and relentless judicial harassment are allowed to become an unchecked feature of journalists’ lives. These types of attacks can be a precursor to lethal violence and may even continue in a different form after a journalist has been murdered. Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered by a car bomb two years ago in Malta, had suffered years of threats and violence towards her and her family. Since her death the mastermind has not been brought to account, and the public inquiry which has eventually been set up by the Maltese Government in response to strong international pressure has been severely criticised for its lack of independence. Meanwhile attacks on her reputation continue and public memorials to her in Valletta are routinely cleared away. Daphne’s family has been forced to defend  against numerous lawsuits that have been allowed to continue long after her death; and her three sons have felt driven, in the absence of a swift, independent and effective investigation into Daphne’s murder, to devote their own energies to the pursuit of justice for their mother’s murder.

Journalists have sometimes referred to impunity as a virus which prevents them from providing information needed by the public for discussion and disagreement in healthy civil societies.  Where such information is absent it is all too easy for the public to be unaware or unconcerned. Diminishing expectations about the audiences of news mean that the public are often not treated as citizens who are expected to put in some of their own hard work to support sustainable democracies, nor as discerning consumers who shop around for reliable informative news.  Rather for those who capitalise on technological developments and use news media outlets to their own ends, the public are increasingly being treated as products to be sold to advertisers, or as ultra-loyal partisans who have to do nothing other than be loyal to a leader who offers simple solutions to a complex set of problems, or as ultra-loyal consumers who are expected to relax and enjoy rather than be discomforted or challenged.  

An increasingly antagonistic view towards journalism that is accurate, honest, independent and truthful has also enabled impunity to flourish by contributing to a hothouse environment where there is no consensus on what constitutes the public interest – or indeed on what are the facts. As the communicative civil basis of societies are undermined, trust in civil institutions and their value – such as news journalism – is further diminished

It is because impunity is a multipronged assault on journalists, the public and the very idea of free and independent journalism that journalists find themselves operating in an increasingly dangerous environment. Danger is great, not just in war zones, but worldwide and in countries that are usually described as democratic, where the virus of impunity could all so easily develop into a full blown epidemic. Impunity has many guises and a lot of it, in spite of attempts to monitor the most blatant aspects of it, remains for the most part invisible.  The deeper roots of impunity are a direct assault on the quality of civil society and our associative life. Impunity is both the cause and the effect of the diminishment of the system it infects, and we need a more holistic understanding of its reach and scope as well as more sophisticated methodologies to detect all its origins and effects. 

-Professor Jackie Harrison