Silence Is Not an Option

Courts play an important role in protecting freedom of expression and in investigating the murder of journalists like Jamal Khashoggi. 

Caroline Harting
September 26, 2019

In the lead-up to the one-year anniversary of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, Agnès Callamard, director of Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression initiative and a United Nations Special Rapporteur, spoke to Columbia News about the threats journalists face around the world.

Q: What is the mission of Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression initiative?

A: Columbia Global Freedom of Expression was established in 2014 by the president of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger, a First Amendment scholar. The mandate of our initiative is to document the extent to which courts around the world are protecting freedom of expression and the extent to which they are using and relying on international standards to do so.

Over the last six years we have analyzed more than 1,200 cases from about 130 countries. We also have a smaller website in Spanish and we are now developing one in Arabic. All of those cases pertain to freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to protest, and they are all developed according to the same format. They allow for quick search and comparative analysis, and they are very good tools not only for academics and students, but also for practitioners, who need some reference materials to back up their arguments in court.

Q: In addition to being director of Global Freedom of Expression, you’re a UN Special Rapporteur. Can you explain your role at the UN?

A: Special Rapporteurs are independent experts who are appointed by member states of the United Nations. My mandate is to document, examine and investigate arbitrary deprivation of life and report back to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly of the UN. The Human Rights Council is a small version of the UN General Assembly, focusing on human rights issues. It meets three times a year in Geneva.

Man smiling with glasses in white robe and white headdress

Q:  Do you think there is a connection between your work at Global Freedom of Expression and being a UN Special Rapporteur?

A:  Yes, absolutely, in terms of the methods of work and in terms of the focus of work. The court database of Columbia Global Freedom of Expression includes cases of killings of journalists, human rights defenders, political activists. Such targeted killings are also part of my mandate as a Special Rapporteur. From a methodology standpoint, both responsibilities demand accuracy and impartiality in approaching violations, be they of the right to life or of freedom of expression, and analyzing the responsibilities of the states.

Agnes Callamard on Four Cases Involving Journalists Who Were Killed or Threatened

Deyda Hydara, a journalist from Gambia and press freedom activist, was the editor of The Point, an important critical voice in Gambia’s restrictive and repressive press freedom environment.

In December 2004, Hydara was murdered in a drive-by shooting. His family has pointed out that Hydara was under heavy police surveillance because of his political press freedom activities. They believe that it was unlikely that the government either didn’t know about plans to kill him or was not involved in his killing.

The Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice agreed with the family and Hydara’s lawyer, finding that the state of Gambia had failed to effectively investigate his murder and to provide reparation and compensation to his family.

This is the first decision by a regional African court insisting that the right to freedom of expression includes the right to openly criticize the government, and that states have an obligation to protect journalists, including those critical of the ruling regime. The case is also important because it recognizes that the lack of effective investigation and impunity have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. The court delivered this decision protecting press freedom by relying on and interpreting international standards.  

The journalist Pablo Medina Velázquez was a well-known investigative journalist who worked for the Paraguayan national broadcaster ABC. His work focused on crimes committed in the city of Ypejhú. At the time of his killing, he was reporting on a story about the alleged use of toxic pesticides on local farms.

In 2014, as he was returning from an investigation, he was shot dead along with his assistant, Antonia Chamorro, whose sister was also in the car and was wounded in the attack.

The police launched an investigation into not only the people who had perpetrated the crime, but also, importantly, on who may have ordered the killing.

The former mayor of Ypejhú, Vilmar Acosta, was found to have ordered Velazquez’s and his assistant’s killing. Acosta was sentenced to 39 years in prison.

This case is particularly significant for the press freedom community because the court focused on the mastermind of the killing. It did not just focus on the hit men, which is often the direction that police investigations and courts take. The ruling also marks a milestone in Paraguayan jurisprudence because it was the first time someone was actually sentenced for violence against a journalist.

In  2004, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was working for Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper in Russia that is still one of the few independent newspapers in the country. She rose to prominence for her reporting on the Chechen War and abuses committed by the Russian military during the conflict. She often received death threats as a result of her work, including being threatened with rape and experiencing a mock execution after being arrested by the Russian military in Chechnya.

In October 2006, Politkovskaya was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building. The Russian authorities undertook an investigation that resulted in the indictment and imprisonment of five individuals. Others were acquitted and at least one fled the country. To this day the mastermind of the killing has not been identified.

Politkovskaya’s family and colleagues were disappointed that the investigation failed to focus on the responsibility of the state and state officials. They argued that it was unlikely that state agents were not involved since she was under heavy governmental surveillance at the time of her killing. The family eventually moved the case to the European Court for Human Rights.

The court seized upon the case and more than a decade after her murder, concluded that the Russian government had failed to effectively investigate Politkovskaya’s murder. The court stressed that an investigation into a contract killing could not be considered adequate if no efforts had been made to identify the persons who had commissioned the crime and paid for it. Such a decision makes a major contribution to the jurisprudence on what amounts to an effective investigation into the killing of a journalist.

Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist, was working on an in-depth investigation into the mass killings of Muslims during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Her investigation led her to conclude that the person in charge of the Gujarat region where the killing took place was responsible for failing to protect the Muslim population and possibly for the killings themselves. That person is now the elected prime minister of India, Narendra Damodardas Modi.

In 2016, after she published and reported on her findings she became the victim of heavy online harassment. There were calls for her to be gang raped and murdered. The threats were raised to such a level that as a UN Special Rapporteur on the protection of the right to life, I felt that the situation required quick action to ensure Ayyub’s protection. Another female Indian journalist, Gauri Lankesh, had been murdered following a similar hate campaign and death threats in September 2017. 

With the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, we issued a call to the Indian government to take all necessary measures to protect Ayyub against possible attacks and to investigate the threats.

She continues to receive hate speech and death threats, but I hope our calls have convinced the government to take the threats seriously and ensure her protection.

Q:  How are these four cases related the Jamal Khashoggi case?

A: Khashoggi’s killing is emblematic of killings of journalists around the world. And these four examples from Gambia, India, Paraguay and Russia all possess particular dimensions that we have found in the Khashoggi case.

They all highlight the protection of press freedom. They demonstrate the importance of an effective investigation, and the fact that without one, press freedom is under threat. They demonstrate why it is crucial to pinpoint the mastermind, not just the hit men. Without identifying the mastermind, you send the wrong message to the press community and to those in power.

These cases also illustrate that the prevention of an attack or a killing should be the government’s highest priority when it comes to the protection of journalists. Of course, we want an effective investigation, we want to identify the mastermind, but what we want first and foremost is for governments to take steps to ensure that journalists, who are taking risks and reporting on issues that may be disturbing to powerful entities, are protected, and that any kind of credible threats against them will be properly investigated.