A Day to End Impunity and Demand Justice

A poster from IFEX commemorating International Day to End Impunity. Graphic Courtesy IFEX.

Today is the second annual International Day to End Impunity, which was launched by IFEX, a global network defending and promoting free expression. It is a day dedicated to demanding justice for those who have been targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression, and shedding light on the issue of impunity.

Impunity means without punishment or consequences: every day, countless citizens, artists, bloggers, musicians and journalists have been harassed, threatened, tortured, intimidated, jailed and worse for exercising their basic human right to free expression. In the past 10 years, more than 500 journalists have been killed. Most of these crimes have gone unpunished.

In 2012, IFEX is highlighting the culture of impunity by profiling individuals who have been the target of threats, violent attacks, torture and blackmail, where international attention could provide a measure of protection. The campaign encompasses all types of free expression, including activists, artists, cartoonists, filmmakers, journalists, human rights defenders, musicians, social media users, and writers
The aim of the day is to raise public awareness about impunity, and to showcase the important work free expression organisations around the world have been doing to fight for justice and freedom of expression for all.

November 23rdy marks the anniversary of the 2009 Ampatuan massacre, the single deadliest incident for journalists in recent history, in which 58 people — including 32 journalists and media workers — were murdered in the Philippines.

Annie Game, Executive Director of IFEX says that ”Impunity should not be normalized. It needs to be challenged. IFEX members decided to create a specific day, International Day to End Impunity, on which our voices would be used to raise public awareness about what creates and sustains a culture of impunity, and to call on concerned citizens worldwide to take action – to use their voices to demand justice.”

For the last 23 days, IFEX has featured different individuals who have been targeted for expressing themselves. Among those in RFA’s broadcast region are:

Sok Ratha(Cambodia). In 2009, journalist Sok Ratha went to cover a long-running land dispute in a village in the remote Cambodian province of Ratanakkiri. At the heart of the controversy was 260 hectares of land, being fought over by a rubber company, DM Group, and more than 100 families from the indigenous group Tumpuon.

Today, DM Group has taken possession of the land. The majority of villagers have fled the area. Many of those who have stayed put have been threatened and intimidated. Twelve of them have faced legal charges. In October 2012, Sok Ratha and three rights defenders were summoned to court– most recently for allegedly inciting villagers to protest. He faces similar charges from 2009, despite the fact that the charges were brought against him by a judge accused of delinquency for allegedly working with the rubber company.For years the provincial authorities and the court have harassed him for his reporting.

In 2004, Sok Ratha was arrested for documenting the plight of a group of Christian Montagnards, hill tribes people fleeing religious repression in Vietnam and hiding in the Ratanakiri jungle. A couple of years later, while trying to report on illegal logging involving military authorities, he was run down by a truck driven by a military official. He was dragged 100 meters but escaped serious injury. He has declined several offers from RFA to relocate to the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, choosing to remain with his family in Ratanakiri and to keep on reporting. “This is my job,” he declared, “and [fellow journalists] will think as I do.”

Nguyen Hoang Vi (Vietnam). While 25-year-old Nguyen Hoang Vi (pen name An Do Nguyen) was at a birthday party in Ho Chi Minh this summer for her fellow bloggers, a group of 20 suspected state agents dropped in and started snapping pictures and listening in on conversations. The bloggers remained calm – state agents monitoring their activities was a normal affair. But when Nguyen and four others left the party by car, they were followed by eight agents, who smashed two of the rear windows. Nguyen suffered the most serious injuries, with cuts on her arms, legs and face.

Nguyen believes the state is out to silence her since she started blogging critically about social issues and gathering news of public events such as anti-China protests and a clampdown on free expression. When she was arrested to prevent her from reporting on an anti-China protest in June 2011, security agents set up camp outside her home to watch her and her son’s every move. They still haven’t left. In October 2011, a state agent followed her on her motorbike and caused an accident, in which she lost seven teeth. She says she no longer travels by motorbike fearing another “accident”.

She was laid off from her job in December 2011 due to pressure from government officials.In April 2012 on her way to Cambodia in search of work, she was stopped by border guards who prevented her from travelling, allegedly for being a “reactionary element”. After that, her passport was confiscated and she can’t travel abroad. Not a single incident was investigated – perhaps no surprise, considering Vietnam’s history of cracking down on bloggers. Just this September, Vietnam’s leaders ordered police to arrest those responsible for anti-government blogs, and three bloggers were sentenced to up to 12 years in jail on anti-state propaganda charges.

Ai Weiwei (China). You might know Ai Weiwei for his design of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Bird’s Nest stadium, the photo of his middle finger raised at Tiananmen Square, or even his take on Gangnam Style. What you may not know is that in China, the celebrated artist is an enemy of the state. Soon after he began a “citizens’ investigation” of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake – in which thousands of children were killed as shabbily built schools collapsed – his clashes with the authorities intensified. In June 2009, the Chinese government shut down his blog, which still remains blocked. Not long after, he suffered a police beating that caused a brain hemorrhage – and made art out of his scan. None of the officers were held accountable for their violence.

Last year Ai was jailed for 81 days without charge, taken to a secret police cell and put under round-the-clock guard.Ai has spent the past few months fighting a 15 million yuan (US$2.4 million) fine for what he says is a fabricated charge of tax evasion. Police told him in private the fine was to discredit him for criticizing the government publicly. However, within 10 days Ai had raised nearly 9 million yuan in bail (US$1.4 million) over social media.” There’s no doubt we lost the case in court,” he says, “but we won public opinion and moral support.”

In recent months, Ai says, the police stopped following him, and he’s become accustomed to the 15 surveillance cameras around his compound. Still, Ai couldn’t leave China to attend the opening of his first North American show in October because Beijing won’t release his passport. He continues to be erased from Chinese media. An Internet search for “Ai Weiwei” in China returns nothing. Twitter – where you can find him prolifically tweeting (@aiww)– and Facebook are hardly accessible.When asked why he keeps fighting the state at great risk to himself – and with so few of China’s billion people knowing who he is, he says, “If artists cannot speak up for human dignity or rights, then who else will do it?”

When someone acts with impunity, it means that their actions have no consequences. Intimidation, threats, attacks and murders go unpunished. A culture of impunity creates a climate of injustice and insecurity for those practising their right to freedom of expression. A culture of impunity leads to a world where people are afraid to speak out. Where criticism is stifled. Where the hard questions don’t get asked. Where the powerful don’t get challenged. The result is a world where free expression is silenced.

Impunity means it is OK to take the voice away from those who speak in the public interest or those with whom you don’t agree or those who tell the stories others might not like to hear. It is fine to scare them, threaten their families, intimidate and hurt them to keep them silent.

To learn more, check out Getting Away With Murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2012 Impunity Index which spotlights countries where journalists are slain and killers go free.

You can take action to end impunity and view this video from IFEX to mark this occasion:

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