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Press freedom groups launched the People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists in The Hague on November 2, 2021. (Photo: Leon Willems/Twitter)

As People's Tribunal for Murdered Journalists Launches, Two More Killed in Mexico

"Violence and impunity form a vicious cycle that must be broken to secure the basic human right to free expression."

Jessica Corbett

Just days after a pair of journalists were killed in Mexico, a trio of press freedom groups kicked off a six-month tribunal in The Hague on Tuesday in what they called "an unprecedented effort to achieve justice" for members of the media who face a rising threat of violence and even death for their work while their attackers and killers often face no consequences.

"The frequency of grave violations committed against journalists coupled with prevailing high levels of impunity is alarming."

The launch of the People's Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists—led by the Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF)—lined up with the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

An opening event on Tuesday that featured 13 witnesses was the first of five hearings. Three more are planned for country-specific cases involving murdered journalists, and a final event is scheduled for May 3, 2022, which is World Press Freedom Day.

Speakers at the initial hearing included Filipino journalist Maria Ressa—who in October was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize—and Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at his home country's consulate in Istanbul three years ago.

"I am participating in the people's tribunal to reveal the truth about how journalists are targeted by illegitimate governments who have so much to hide," Cengiz, an academic researcher, said in a statement. "The world needs to know the real facts and needs to act decisively to protect the free press."

Matthew Caruana Galizia, the son of murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, similarly took aim at governments that fail to seek justice for people like his mother.

"I decided to participate in the tribunal because I am worried about the attacks by states on our democratic rights," said the surviving Caruana Galizia, a decorated journalist himself and director of the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation.

"Statehood is a weapon that should be used to defend the liberties of the many," he said. "Wherever journalists are being murdered while reporting on corruption and organized crime, it is a sign that statehood is instead being used to protect the interests of the few."

International human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, lead prosecutor of the tribunal, delivered to the panel of judges an indictment containing charges against the Sri Lankan, Mexican, and Syrian governments for failing to deliver justice for the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, and Nabil Al-Sharbaji, respectively.

"Each of these cases are marked by continued impunity, without concrete perspective for justice in the country in question," the indictment reportedly says. "They are reflective of a wider pattern of violence against journalists in these contexts and illustrate the ways in which these states, by act or omission, fail to honor their obligations under international human rights law."

Bernabeu—a Spanish-born attorney who was part of the effort to prosecute Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide—said Tuesday that "freedom of expression is an essential human right. And yet, the frequency of grave violations committed against journalists coupled with prevailing high levels of impunity is alarming. It is time that states are held accountable."

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 400 journalists have been killed worldwide over the past five years, and there is an 87% impunity rate for journalist murders between 2006 and 2020.

"Since 2017, the majority of these crimes have taken place outside of countries experiencing armed conflict—more than 60% of killings in 2020. In other words, journalists are not only dying in the crossfire of war—they are also being targeted for exposing wrongdoing and speaking truth to power," said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO's director-general, in a statement announcing the new statistics.

Separately on Tuesday, Azoulay said that "I condemn the killings of Fredy López Arévalo and Alfredo Cardoso," the journalists killed in Mexico last week.

"I call on the Mexican authorities to investigate these crimes and bring their perpetrators to justice," she said. "Today, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, it is incumbent upon me to stress that letting such crimes go unpunished emboldens those who resort to violence to silence journalists. Violence and impunity form a vicious cycle that must be broken to secure the basic human right to free expression."

López was shot in the head Thursday at his home in the Mexican city of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Cardoso died Sunday after being taken from his home and shot five times, The Guardian reported Monday, noting that their deaths bring this year's total for Mexico to nine, "already surpassing the eight deaths recorded in 2020."

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