Will a People’s Tribunal Help to Create a Safer World for the Truth?

THE HAGUE – On November 2nd, the opening hearing of the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists kickstarted an initiative to demand justice in the killing of journalists. Collecting speeches and testimonies from people fighting for press freedom, the Tribunal aims to push states to investigate and pursue the truth, raising awareness on protecting journalists and preventing them from threats and death.

Free Press Unlimited (FPU), the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) launched this venture. The promoters called the killing of journalists “the world’s safest crime,” as the killers go free in eight out of ten cases. Twenty journalists have been killed in 2021 so far, according to CPJ data. Since 1992, over one thousand and four hundred journalists have died while doing their job.

The Tribunal put these numbers under the spotlight, striving for more attention in public opinion and governments. In his opening speech, Leon Willems, Director of FPU, denounced that the murder of journalists is not a priority in politics’ agenda. Willems highlighted the importance of the Tribunal as proof that investigating cold cases is possible.

Leon Willems, Director of Free Press Unlimited (Photo: Marcello Filibeck)

9to5 asked Willems about the outcomes he expects from the People’s Tribunal. “We want to show that it’s possible to investigate journalists’ murders,” Willems said. The Free Press Unlimited Director stressed the importance of untangling the standard response from states, which often argue that cases are too complicated, freezing the investigations.

Willems rejected this position, explaining that FPU has reviewed ten cases, finding new evidence and discovering that witnesses have not been heard. “If we could do it during the coronavirus pandemic – with support from friends and partners in Pakistan and Mexico – the authorities should be able of doing this job as well,” he stated.

The organisers want to provide a public record for all the documented cases to raise consciousness. “We created a resource space on our website to highlight the stories of these people because we think that killing journalists is also killing their stories,” Willems said.

Also, FPU and the other organisers are making proposals to the international community to create a permanent investigation force at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and empower the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression mandate to demand fast investigations.

When asked if FPU aims to use the People’s Tribunal to gather more funds for the investigations, Willems made a clear distinction between public and private funds. “It was important for us that our current donor – the Dutch Postcode Lottery – is an independent foundation,” he said. Willem added that “Governments should fund the training of their prosecutors and judges, instead.”

“This is particularly relevant in countries with a lack of public accountability,” Willems continued, besides wishing that independent donors would keep supporting his organisation continuously. The Director of FPU explained that the states should sharpen the guidelines for how to act in case of a journalist murder, considering it a crime against freedom of expression.

The Opening Ceremony featured Gianni Tognoni, the Secretary-General of Rome’s based Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT). In his speech, Tognoni defined the initiative as the beginning of a long path. The Secretary-General explained that the testimonies given on November 2nd represent case studies among a broader spectrum of murders, kills and acts of harassment against journalists.

Gianni Tognoni during his opening statement (Photo: Marcello Filibeck)

“People have the right to access information. And this right is guaranteed by journalists,” Tognoni said, emphasising the press’ mission in society. In his conversation with 9to5, the Secretary-General explained that the People’s Tribunal aspires to set a new standard in investigating murdered journalists.

“Today, we presented cases from the past to show that it’s possible to investigate stories with different backgrounds using a common methodology,” he said. In Tognoni’s opinion, building an established framework for trials and investigations is the primary outcome to strive for with this initiative.

From January to March 2022, the People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists will host three case hearings. Two are taking place in The Hague and concern the murders of journalists Lasantha Wickrematunge, from Sri Lanka, and Nabil Al-Sharbaji, from Syria. One is set in Mexico City, and it’s about the case of Mexican journalist Miguel Ángel López Velasco. A closing hearing will follow in The Hague on May 3rd.

Karinna Moskalenko, a human rights lawyer, working on the case of the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, joined the opening hearing as a witness. Moskalenko reported her story to the judges during the opening hearing with dedication and commitment, showing a deep trust in the Tribunal’s effectiveness.

Speaking with 9to5 on the relevance of the People’s Tribunal, Moskalenko underlined the moral meaning of the action. “Although this Tribunal has no legal value, it’s helping to raise topics and attention on murdered journalists,” she said. “This is worth much. It’s a jump start to something bigger, or at least I hope so,” Moskalenko affirmed before taking the last sip of coffee and getting back to the makeshift courtroom.

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