Freedom of Expression

5 - Chapter IV - Laws on Contempt, Compulsory Membership, and Murder of Journalists

C.        Murder of Journalists


           The murder of journalists is used as the most brutal method for curtailing freedom of expression in the hemisphere.  This practice has had two specific objectives.  On one hand, it has been used to eliminate those journalists who conduct investigations into violations, abuses, irregularities, or illegal acts of all kinds carried out either by public officials, organizations, or private parties in general, so that their investigations cannot be concluded or revealed to the public or simply in retaliation for those investigations.  On the other hand, assassination of journalists also has been used as a tool for intimidation, by which a clear message is sent to any persons in civil society who are involved in the investigation of violations, abuses, irregularities, or illicit acts of any kind.  In this way, the perpetrators seek to silence the press as a non institutional control mechanism or to make it an accomplice of those persons or institutions that engage or are involved in illegal or abusive acts.  In the latter case, the objective is to prevent society from being informed of the events in question, at all costs.


           Around 150 journalists have been murdered in our hemisphere in recent years.  In this respect, the Rapporteur has been able to ascertain that in many of these assassinations, there has not been a firm determination on the part of the authorities to conduct an effective investigation into these events and punish the intellectual authors or the actual perpetrators of the crime, thereby engendering an impunity for this type of crimes on numerous occasions.  On this point, the Rapporteur would like to point out that pursuant to the American Convention on Human Rights and other instruments of international law, states have a duty to investigate effectively the events surrounding the murder of journalists and to punish all the authors of the crime.[1]


           The duty of States to investigate is an “obligation pertaining to a means or conduct,” which cannot be considered as unfulfilled only because the investigation  may have failed to produce a satisfactory result, but “it must be undertaken seriously and not as a simple formality doomed in advance to be futile.”  The investigation “must be meaningful and must be taken on by the state as its own legal duty, and not as a simple measure adopted for private interests, based on the legal initiative of victims or their family members or on inputs that have no evidentiary value, without any attempt on the part of the authorities to pursue an effective search for the truth.”[2]


           It is appropriate to quote a text from the principles of the Declaration of Chapultepec that speaks to the same point:


Assassination, terrorism, kidnapping, abuse of power, intimidation, unfair imprisonment of journalists, the physical destruction of the information media, violence of any kind and the impunity of the aggressors severely limit freedom of expression and freedom of the press.  These acts must be promptly investigated and severely punished.[3]


           Likewise, the United Nations Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO) has expressed its concern at the growing number of journalists murdered in recent years as a result of the practice of their profession and at the impunity of these crimes.  UNESCO made the following recommendations, among others, to the member states:


a.             That governments adopt the principle that they will not prescribe crimes against persons when  they are perpetrated to prevent the exercise of freedom of information and expression or when they are committed for the purpose of obstructing justice.


b.             That governments will improve their legislation to facilitate the prosecution and conviction of the intellectual authors of murders of persons who were exercising their right to freedom of expression.[4]


           The same concern was shared by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for promotion and protection of the right to freedom of thought and expression, who had the following to say:


Governments must … make every effort to investigate acts or threats of violence, intimidation, or harassment against the personnel or offices of the information media and to prosecute the responsible parties.


           In this regard, the Rapporteur express as has said the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights that the failure of a government to conduct an effective and complete investigation into the murder of a journalist and to punish the intellectual authors and the actual perpetrators of the crime is particularly serious because of the impact this has on society.  This type of crime not only has an intimidating effect on other journalists, but it also has that effect on any citizen, since it generates fear of reporting violations, abuses, and illicit acts of any kind.  This effect can be prevented only by decisive action on the part of states to punish the perpetrators of assassinations of journalists.  In this way states can send a strong and direct message to society to the effect that there will be no leniency for persons who commit such serious violations of a person’s right to freedom of expression.[5]


           In conclusion, the Rapporteur stated, namely that failure to conduct an effective and complete investigation into the assassination of a journalist and to punish both the intellectual and the material authors of the crime entails a violation of the right to inform and to express oneself publicly and freely.  At the same time, the murder of journalists is an offense against all citizens who may have occasion to report arbitrariness and abuse to society, aggravated by the impunity of all or some of its authors.  Thus, failure to conduct a serious and complete investigation into the murder of a journalist leads to international responsibility on the part of states for violating the right to freedom of expression of the murdered journalist and the right of citizens in general to receive information freely and to know the truth.


           The Rapporteur would like to conclude this analysis by making specific reference to the relationship between the murderer of a journalist, the impunity of all or some of the authors of the crime, and social mobilization as a form of protest at the death of such persons and as a way of making people aware of the importance of freedom of expression and public debate in a democratic society.


           On many occasions, civil society has realized that a journalist was murdered so that it would not be informed of a specific fact or event, and it has peacefully mobilized in protest against this brutal violation of the right to life and freedom of expression.  A clear example of this was the assassination of Argentine journalist José Luis Cabezas in 1997.  On that occasion, large sectors of Argentine society were mobilized and demanded that the authorities investigate the incident and prosecute the actual perpetrators and the masterminds of the crime.  Although in this case the actual perpetrators of the murder were arrested, the persons who planned the crime were not.  Human rights organizations and a number of journalists in Argentina repeatedly expressed their concerns over the irregularities and inefficiency of the investigations during the judicial phase.


           The case of Journalist José Luis Cabezas shows that mobilization of society is fundamental to create a awareness on the part of society of the importance of freedom of expression to strengthen democracy, and the need for an objective, effective, complete, and independent investigation, so that these crimes do not go unpunished.  The peaceful mobilization of society is also the best guarantee that such crimes will not be repeated.  In this way, the silence that was sought by murdering a journalist disappears and is turned against the authors of the crime by the repudiation of society.


1.                  Cases concerning the murder of journalists in this hemisphere during 1998


           The Rapporteur has received information on cases regarding the killing of journalists during 1998.


           The various groups devoted to the protection of freedom of expression have produced different data on the killing of journalists.  Given the information received, the Rapporteur has decided to account for those cases where there is reasonable indicia that the reason for the killing was linked to the exercise of the journalistic activity.  This list does not constitute a determination of State responsibility and has the sole purpose of highlighting that this is one of the most dangerous professions in the world.


[1] The Inter-American Court has said, “The State is obligated to investigate every situation involving a violation of the rights protected by the Convention. If the State apparatus acts in such a way that the violations goes unpunished and the victim’s full enjoyment of such rights is not restored as soon as possible, the State has failed to comply with its duty to ensure the free and full exercise of those rights to the persons within its jurisdiction. The same is true when the State allows private persons or groups to act freely and with immunity to the detriment of the rights recognized by the Convention.” See, Inter–American Court of human Rights, case Velásquez Rodríguez, Judgement July 29, 1988, par. 176.

[2] See the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, Case of Velásquez Rodriguez, Judgment of July 29, 1988, para. 177.

[3]Principle No. 5, Declaration of Chapultepec, adopted by the Hemispheric Conference on Freedom of Expression, held in Mexico City, March 11, 1994.

[4] UNESCO, Resolution 120 of November 12, 1997.

[5] See the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Report No 50/99 case 11.739 (Mexico) OEA/Ser/L/V/II. Doc.57, April 13, 1999.