THE HAGUE – A “people's tribunal” opened Tuesday in the Netherlands to highlight the number of journalists around the world who were killed for doing their jobs, often with impunity for their killers.
The tribunal, convened by a group of press freedom organizations, has no powers to sanction perpetrators but will present evidence to raise awareness about journalists targeted for attacks in order to stop their reporting. It is expected to issue a judgment in May next year.
The first hearing took place on the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, an observance declared by the U.N. General Assembly. Appearing before the tribunal was one of the two journalists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month for their fight for freedom of expression in countries where reporters have faced persistent attacks, harassment and even death.
The Nobel laureate from the Philippines, Maria Ressa, addressed the hearing via a video link, warning of what she called the “weaponization” of social media, with rapidly multiplying hate messages being used in attempts to silence critical voices.
“The meta-narrative, for example, in my case is: journalist equals criminal. You say that lie a million times it becomes a fact,” she said.
Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, also spoke, saying that “still we are in danger because there is impunity.”
Organizers of the tribunal said in their indictment that at least 1,400 journalists have been killed doing their job since 1992. "In at least 900 of these cases, journalists were killed in direct reprisal for their work. In 86% of these cases, none of the perpetrators are brought to justice,” organizers said.
The tribunal is focusing on three slain journalists: Lasantha Wickrematunge in Sri Lanka, Nabil Al-Sharbaji in Syria and Miguel Ángel López Velasco in Mexico. Activists have “indicted” the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico and Syria for “failing to deliver justice” in the slayings. Evidence in the cases is expected to be presented at future hearings early next year.
“Each of these cases are marked by continued impunity, without concrete perspective for justice in the country in question,” the tribunal indictment states. “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.”
As the tribunal convened for its first session in a church in The Hague, British lawyer Helena Kennedy said the cases "are emblematic of the persistent impunity for the murders of journalists across the world."
In a statement marking the day to end impunity for crimes targeting journalists, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said: “Only by investigating and prosecuting crimes against media professionals can we guarantee access to information and freedom of expression.”
Such “people's tribunals” have been set up previously in cases where victims have little or no access to other forms of legal redress. A tribunal opened in London in June to establish whether China’s alleged rights abuses against the Uyghur people amounted to genocide. It hopes to issue a ruling by the end of the year.