“Brave journalists around the world are putting their lives at risk to get the story, take the picture, shoot the video and/or get the perfect angle,” according to the International Center for Journalists. Often, “bringing the news means being targeted — online and offline. Now more than ever, doing journalism the right way takes exceptional bravery.”
Indeed, journalists around the world today are facing increased prosecution, arrests, detentions, death threats, disappearances, imprisonment, and even assassination – for doing their jobs. Media offices have been blown up (AP and Al Jazeera) and shut down (Rappler). Since 1992, more than 1400 journalists have been killed, according to RSF. In eight out of ten cases where a journalist has been murdered, “the killers go free.”
Journalists around the world today are facing increased prosecution, arrests, detentions, death threats, disappearances, imprisonment, and even assassination.
Reporting the facts has never been more difficult and dangerous. But despite repeated calls for justice and accountability by human rights organizations, press freedom groups, and advocates of democracy and the rule of law, there has been little accountability for state actors and others who perpetrate these abuses.
On November 2, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, three press freedom groups, Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), launched a new People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists in The Hague.
The permanent Tribunal is designed to raise awareness of the crimes against journalists to end impunity by perpetrators of those crimes. The Tribunal will “sit” in three separate case hearings during the next six months and take testimony from dozens of witnesses against the governments of three countries: Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Syria.
Many of the witnesses are well-known journalists and activists. Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist brutally murdered in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, has been on a relentless campaign for justice for Jamal. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and renowned journalist Maria Ressa, the Filipino American co-founder and CEO of Rappler, has faced threats, arrest, and detention in reprisal for her work. Other witnesses include Matthew Caruana Galizia, journalist and son of the murdered Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and investigative journalist Pavla Holcová, colleague of murdered Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak.
People’s tribunals are intended to hold governments accountable when there is no other accountability.
People’s tribunals are intended to hold governments accountable when there is no other accountability. Through investigation and high-quality legal analysis, the newly launched People’s Tribunal is designed to do just that.
The opening session on November 2 heard the testimony of 13 witnesses focused on the patterns of violence, the causes of impunity, and the responsibility of states. The Lead Prosecutor, renowned international human rights lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, delivered the “indictment” to the panel of judges, charging the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Syria for “failing to deliver justice for the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, and Nabil Al-Sharbaji.”
The Tribunal will document these cases in detail during the hearings over the coming months and demonstrate not only “the ways in which these States fail to honor their obligations under international human rights law,” but also “the impact of impunity on victims, journalistic communities, and societies,” said RSF.
People’s tribunals emerged in the 1960s Vietnam era to “fill the normative vacuum created by the stark hypocrises [sic] of international justice,” according to Richard Falk, a professor of politics and international affairs, emeritus, at Princeton University and a visiting professor at the University of California. The first was a populist response in 1967 of “speaking truth to power” in opposition to the American-led military intervention in Vietnam that raised many serious allegations of crime in the international use of force. One of the goals of that tribunal was to ensure that the rule of law would be applicable to the strong as well as the weak.
People’s tribunals emerged in the 1960s Vietnam era to “fill the normative vacuum created by the stark hypocrisies of international justice.”
People’s tribunals are typically independent, peaceful, grassroots movements, formed by individuals to address impunity that is often associated with ongoing or past wrongs or atrocities. They provide an “alternative history and create a space for healing and reconciliation” that may not otherwise occur because of political agendas and legal technicalities. Over the years, they have been established to address many kinds of situations, all the way from environmental degradation to sexual slavery and genocide.
“Almost always created in exceptional circumstances of defiance of the most elemental constraints of international law and morality,” according to Falk, people’s tribunals are particularly critical when geopolitical dynamics preclude the use of other institutional procedures, such as the International Criminal Court or the UN Security Council and General Assembly. Whether a people’s tribunal can be effective or actually hold anyone to account, however, is a big question mark.
Hague-based lawyer and political scientist Benjamin Duerr, who has written about the role of people’s tribunals in international justice, told Inside Arabia that “it depends on the definition of ‘effective’ and what ‘accountability’ means.” The newly established People’s Tribunal is not an official government nor a state-constituted body. Therefore,it “won’t be able to put anyone behind bars,” Duerr said. “In the strictly legal sense, one might say it is not effective. However, I think accountability is more than putting perpetrators behind bars. Accountability can also be partially achieved through public naming and shaming of those who previously remained hidden.”
Yet public opprobrium is not the extent of what it might accomplish, according to Duerr. “People’s Tribunals can also lead to formal accountability processes in court,” he said. “The past has shown that they can play a big role in putting topics on the agenda, such as the murder of journalists. So, the Tribunal in The Hague can certainly be effective in bringing the topic of murdered journalists to the attention of the wider public and the judicial system. Formal cases could follow.”
People’s tribunals are a “mechanism that is being utilized by groups all over the world on several issues where impunity is rampant.”
People’s tribunals are a “mechanism that is being utilized by groups all over the world on several issues where impunity is rampant,” international criminal attorney Regina Menachery Paulose told Inside Arabia. She cited the Aban Tribunal in London in November addressing brutality and violence committed against civilians by Iran in 2019, and the China Tribunal of two years ago addressing organ harvesting.
Another high profile peoples’ tribunal was the one established in Tokyo in 2000, following the five decades of silence to inquire into the use of “comfort women” by imperial Japan during the 1930s and 1940s, after women in their 80s and 90s began gathering in front of the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC in 1992 demanding justice for Japan’s system of sexual slavery.
“These types of forums have a powerful component that marries human rights with people who want to engage in conversations in order to find their ‘right to truth’ in a peaceful manner,” said Paulose.
The People’s Tribunal launched by the press freedom groups is specifically “calling attention to specific cases of murder for people who were doing their job” as journalists, she added. This tribunal “will likely show a link between the murders, [the states’] impunity, and the lack of accountability measures [available] when these types of terrible events take place.”