This year too, dozens of journalists have been murdered around the world – 61 according to UNESCO. Since criminal investigations are rare in many countries, a special international team of experts should be set up. As soon as a journalist is murdered, that team would have to go out to immediately collect evidence on the spot, with which a prosecutor can then get to work.

    That is what the prominent human rights lawyer Nadim Houry, author of a report on ways to end impunity for violence against journalists. Houry worked for Human Rights Watch for 13 years and is now director of the Arab Reform Initiative think tank.

    “I see such a task force as a Swiss army knife, with which you can do different things. First of all, after a murder, the team should be at the crime scene quickly, with technical experts who know how to collect evidence in a way that a court can use. You should also immediately search for clues online. It should involve lawyers and forensic experts from different parts of the world.

    “In an ideal world, such a team would have a United Nations mandate. But that is not the case with the current division between the west and China and Russia. That is why I think it should be set up by an international coalition of ‘dedicated countries’, a coalition of the committed.”

    A country where a journalist has been murdered has to agree to the arrival of such a team.

    “That can be a big problem. But other countries may push for the task force to be admitted. I see a role for the Media Freedom Coalition (a partnership of 52 countries, including the Netherlands, that is committed to press freedom and the safety of journalists, ed.). Those countries can use their political persuasiveness.”

    How do you estimate the chances of it happening?

    “At the end of 2020, we have already proposed the idea of ​​a task force with an advisory group of experts. It was widely recognized. But then came the pandemic, Trump was still president, the international system was paralyzed, it didn’t seem the right time for more international cooperation.

    “We are seeing more interest again this year. The realization is back how many journalists are being threatened and killed – and that we have no effective tool to do anything about it. It is about journalists, but also about freedom of the press, about the availability of information at a time when disinformation is used as a weapon of war. The best remedy is objective journalism. And that starts with protecting journalists.

    “It is now up to the countries of the Media Freedom Coalition. Their governments must commit funds to the task force, provide forensic experts, show a willingness to pressure countries to admit the task force.”

    Houry called for the creation of the task force at the ‘Civil Tribunal on Murder of Journalists’, an unofficial tribunal currently focusing on three cases of murdered journalists and which will be closed on Monday in The Hague (see box).

    What is the point of such a tribunal, which has no formal status and cannot impose punishment?

    “It is important that murders of journalists are not only reported in news reports, but that legal action is taken. Such a tribunal consists of judges, prosecutors, witnesses are heard, indictments are drafted, and sentences are passed. It reminds us of the need for a real legal process.

    “They are crimes and it is important that they are spoken of in the language of justice. In addition, such a tribunal would once again draw attention to the impunity that exists for the murder of journalists in many countries.”

    Also read this piece about the Forbidden Stories collective, which helps endangered journalists finish their work

    Why do murders of journalists so rarely lead to prosecution?

    “Only twelve to fifteen percent of such murder cases are solved, although it varies from country to country. That has two causes. In many countries there is a lack of capacity: manpower, money and other resources for investigation and prosecution. As a result, crucial evidence is often not even collected.

    “The authorities often lack political will. Because the perpetrators have good political connections. Or because the murdered journalists were investigating economically or politically powerful figures who can use corrupt means to prevent witnesses from speaking or the police and the judiciary to investigate the case.

    “The countries where there is impunity for murderers of journalists do not pay any political price for this. They feel no pressure at all to change. We have to break that situation.

    “We can learn from a UN initiative, the ‘list of shame’. That is not the official name, it is the list of countries where child soldiers are deployed, which is drawn up every year by the Secretary-General of the UN. Countries will remain on that list until they draw up an action plan to end the practice. It works, because countries don’t like being on that list.

    “All kinds of reports are written about attacks on journalists, but that’s usually it. If the UN lists the countries where the situation is worst every year, we will do more. Countries should not be allowed off the list until they agree to draw up an action plan centered around more investigations, more prosecutions.”