Fighting crimes against journalists: new study will scope High Level Panel’s recommendation for international task force

IDEI Paris 2023 panel
L-R: Antoine Bernard, Reporters Without Borders; Lizzy Bans Nobre, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands; Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, Member of the High Level Panel; Ambassador Katrin Kivi, Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Nadim Houry, Member of the High Level Panel

MFC co-chair the Netherlands has announced that a feasibility study on the establishment of an international investigative task force focused on crimes against journalists has been commissioned and will soon be underway.

The announcement was made at an MFC event marking the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on 2nd November 2023 in Paris, France (watch a recording of the event here). 

Establishing such a task force is a key recommendation of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, the independent advisory body of the Media Freedom Coalition.

The research will determine the potential structure and scope of a multilateral group of investigators, who could deploy or advise on situations where local law enforcement may be lacking either capacity or political will to investigate crimes against journalists.

“Press can only be free when journalists are safe in doing their job,” said Lizzy Bans Nobre of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, speaking at the Paris event.

“It is important to say that those who commit crimes against the guardians of our democracy must be held accountable. And history shows us that this is not self-evident.

“Fighting impunity is a long-term commitment. It can take decades to bring perpetrators to justice. The fight against impunity is one of stamina and of collaboration.”

The vast majority of crimes against journalists go unpunished. UNESCO found that in 2022, the global impunity rate was 86%. UNESCO also reported that 86 journalists were killed in 2022 – one every four days.

IDEI Paris 2023 Lizzy
Lizzy Bans Nobre, Deputy Director, Directorate of Multilateral Institutions and Human Rights, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands

The High Level Panel’s Advisory Report on “Promoting More Effective Investigations into Abuses Against Journalists” noted that this “rampant impunity has a chilling effect on press freedom and a detrimental impact on democracy as a whole”, and is “no longer limited to national borders”.

“I often use this analogy of a Swiss army knife in the sense that [such a task force] can fill different roles for different contexts,” said Nadim Houry, the report’s lead author.

“It could help and contribute and investigate in armed conflicts if and when other international mechanisms are blocked. But it should also work in the context of situations where there’s a protracted high domestic level of violence against journalists – where it’s not about international conflict but often about local gangs, corrupt politicians, or an inept judiciary. A task force that can come and support – as opposed to replacing – existing mechanisms, but which can also fill clear gaps and voids that we’ve seen for the past decades.”

IDEI Paris 2023 Nadim
Nadim Houry, Member of the High Level Panel and author of the Panel’s Report on Promoting More Effective Investigations into Abuses against Journalists

The idea of an international task force is not new, noted Houry. “What we’ve seen from other contexts, be it in counterterrorism, be it against organised crime, is that often, not always, but often, you might need international support, you might need regional support. This will take different forms depending on the country where the crime is happening.”

The High-Level Panel recommended building a task force comprising specially trained investigators, forensic experts and legal specialists who can quickly deploy to crime scenes and/or support national investigators and prosecutors. They would investigate and prepare files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings.

They could also help with or undertake specific criminal investigations into a journalist’s murder, or arbitrary imprisonment, or more long-term issues such as capacity training and institutional development.

Antoine Bernard, Director of Advocacy and Assistance of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), who also spoke at the Paris event, said: “RSF is ready to take part in the foreseen task force. Its effectiveness will depend on overcoming major challenges: clearance by perpetration countries to grant it access to their territory, political conditions for cooperation with competent national and local authorities, legal conditions for the judicialization of evidence found or gathered.

“Getting the authorities involved to move from fierce unwillingness to investigate crimes against journalists to full-fledged cooperation is not the least obstacle to realising the ambition of a task force. Concrete proposals are expected from the study.”

While the group should be made available to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and other UN agencies reporting on abuses against journalists, it is unlikely the necessary political support could be garnered to make the task force a standing body of the UN, note the High Level Panel. They recommend the task force should be sourced from nations which have signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom, working in parallel to create a standalone multilateral body.

This has the benefit of being faster, more dynamic and responsive than UN structures can allow. “It’s a way of overcoming, frankly, the paralysis we’re seeing at the international level,” said report author Nadim Houry.

Drawing from the MFC’s member countries would give the task force a deeper pool of talent, regional knowledge and language skills than any unilateral or bilateral initiative, and provide international credibility – weakening claims of it following any one nation’s political agenda, add the High-Level Panel.

With input from MFC stakeholders and UNESCO, the forthcoming study will be a collaboration between two institutions in the Netherlands: the Asser Institute, an internationally renowned centre of expertise in public international law, private international law, and European Law; and the Center for International Criminal Justice (CICJ) based at the Faculty of Law, VU Amsterdam, an independent centre of expertise in conflict-related crimes, international criminal law and transitional justice.

The Asser Institute is represented by Dr Gabriele Chlevickaite, Dr Uladzislau Belavusau, and Dr Christophe Paulussen. Dr Maarten Bolhuis represents the CICJ (VU Amsterdam).

Their prior research has covered a range of particularly relevant topics, including fact-finding and evidence in international crime proceedings, the investigation and prosecution of international crimes before national courts, human rights law and freedom of speech, and the effect of expansive counter-terrorism laws on journalists.

The study will examine three areas:

  • Identifying international legal gaps in prosecuting crimes against journalists;
  • Determining whether an investigative task force would be effective in cooperative and uncooperative environments;
  • Determining the scope of and prerequisites for a potential task force to address legal and practical obstacles to effective investigations and prosecutions.

Countries which sign on to supporting the task force will be expected to contribute experts, as well as funding. But most importantly, they will be relied upon to provide political support to allow the task force to deploy. Regional champions within the Media Freedom Coalition could act as a focal point for investigations and the diplomacy surrounding them, suggested Nadim Houry.

“What it can achieve is very clear,” he said. “The proof of success will be when we start seeing more effective investigations connected to more effective prosecutions. It’s that simple.” 


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