Judges must speed investigations into crimes against French journalists abroad

Three years have gone by since photo-journalist Camille Lepage died in an ambush in the Central African Republic. But the justice system still has failed to reveal how and why she died. Hers is not the only case. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) demands that the French justice system do its utmost to pursue investigations of the killings and disappearances of French journalists. Impunity, a heavy burden for the journalists’ families, must no longer shield the criminals.

Are resources – or political will – lacking to pursue investigations of the killing, wounding and disappearances of journalists? On May 12, three years will have passed since Camille Lepage was killed in the Central African Republic. Three years during which her family has been trying to learn the truth about what happened on a dirt road 150 km from Bouar in the country’s western region.

Since then, and despite a strong pledge by President François Hollande to “shine the brightest light” on the case, the investigation has stalled. A formal legal request for information was sent to prosecution authorities in the Central African Republic in late 2014, but it rests unanswered.

A second group of French investigators was sent in late January 2017 to the Central African Republic, but was restricted to Bangui. The official reason is concern for security. However, United Nations troops are deployed in Bouar, on a mission that includes facilitating humanitarian access and investigations of human rights-related issues.

“The most difficult thing is not knowing exactly what happened that day,” said Maryvonne Lepage, Camille’s mother. “I would like to know which group bears the responsibility for my daughter’s death, that the guilty parties are at least identified. The investigators’ mission is two years late, based on the announced schedule, and nothing has been set up to allow them to reach the scene. We are waiting impatiently for another hearing, in order to speak to the judge about the case.”

Political interference

The Lepage case is unfortunately not the only pending for years in French courts. Investigation into the murder in northern Mali of RFI journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon has come up against political considerations. The most serious involves military secrecy, which limits access to necessary documents by civil parties, including RSF, and the judge.

Unexpected recent developments have revived the case and pointed toward new leads. These were revealed last January by a documentary “Otage d’Etat,” (Government Hostage) on the French TV channel France2. But this investigation received no help from French, Malian or Nigerian authorities. On the contrary, the journalists revealed that some witnesses, even in France, have been threatened, and have changed their minds about testifying. In addition, the number of potential instigators and perpetrators of the double murder that are still alive, has been greatly reduced by the French Army anti-terrorist operations in Mali.

“We are happy that there has been progress in the investigation, thanks to new elements put forward by the documentary,” said Cléa Kahn-Sriber, head of the RSF Africa desk. “However, we regret that these breakthroughs were not a result of official investigations. We are waiting for more cooperation from French authorities in response to requests by the investigating judge. We hope that a hearing before the judge scheduled in June will allow us to learn more about progress in the investigation.”

In another case from Africa, the 2004 disappearance of French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer remains unsolved after more than 13 years. Kieffer was reporting on the Ivory Coast cacao industry, which is vital to the government – and to part of the country’s elite. An industry fraught with influence-peddling.

A French judge sent a formal legal information request to Ivory Coast in early 2015, but has still not received a response. The judge, for his part, has not travelled to the scene since he was nominated. He announced that he would be visiting the Ivory Coast minister of justice in April, but there has been no follow-through as of now.

The possibilities of solving the case of Kieffer’s disappearance are dwindling. One heavy blow was the September 2016 death of the main witness, Michel Legré, brother-in-law of the first lady during the relevant time, Simone Gbagbo. Kieffer had an appointment with him on the day he disappeared.

In this case as well, President Hollande in 2014 and 2015 and Prime Minister Manuel Valls in 2016 assured RSF that the French government was determined to see that justice was done in the case. Despites these promises, which were echoed by the Ivory Coast president, it still seems impossible, 13 years later, to bring the killers and their backers to justice. Kieffer was a seasoned journalist with deep experience in reporting on sensitive topics. “Let the Guy-André Kieffer case go; we will never know what happened,” a French diplomat told RSF in 2014, on a not-for-attribution basis.

“RSF has the impression that this case is not a priority for the French and Ivory Coast justice systems,” Sophie Busson, head of Advocacy for RSF. “This is very disappointing. We call on French authorities to turn words into deeds and facilitate progress in this case, which they regularly assure us they are pursuing. We hope that the French judge will travel to Ivory Coast as soon as possible in order to hold hearings with witnesses whom he has identified.”

Ending arbitrary treatment

Time is of the essence. The longer an investigation takes, the greater the temptation to shut it down – this is especially so in complicated cases, linked to civil conflicts, with guilty parties located abroad, in countries that often don’t cooperate with French investigations, due to lack of resources or political will.

However, beyond the possible identification and conviction of those directly responsible, bringing justice in these types of cases also demands establishing historical truth, and identifying moral responsibilities of groups and leaders implicated in attacks on journalists, thereby ending arbitrary actions and impunity.

William Roguelon was gravely wounded in a mortar attack in the Sloviansk region of eastern Ukraine. Two of his colleagues, Andrea Rochelli of Italy and Andrei Mironov of Russia, were killed. The Bordeaux court was assigned the case in September 2014, but did not show great involvement.The court, according to Roguelon, seemed to take the view that he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, that he knew the risks, and that he had in the end survived.

The Italian judicial system’s investigation into this case has made a lot of progress but the French probe seems to have ground to a halt even if the investigating judge has said he does not want to close the case.

The French and Italian judicial authorities need to work closely together, pooling the findings of the investigations so far conducted in order to move ahead more quickly and effectively, each country mobilizing its own resources.

Lucas Dolega, a French-German photographer, died in March 2011 of wounds sustained from a direct hit by a tear-gas grenade fired by Tunisian police. He was covering a demonstration in Tunis during the Arab Spring. Clearly identified as a professional journalist, he was with a group of colleagues.

A formal legal request for information sent by a French judge did receive a response in Tunisia. Witnesses were interviewed, but the investigators came up against contradictory testimony from two police commanders. The Tunisian judge did not visit police offices to examine the files of police who were present during the demonstration. Meanwhile, the French judge seemed satisfied with the Tunisian report – which was, to say the least, incomplete – and dismissed the case, without traveling to Tunis himself.

The means exist

The obstacles encountered are even less acceptable given that some cases do receive the attention they deserve, as a result of the political climate that prevailed when they began.

One telling example is the judicial investigation opened in France in 2013 by the war crimes and crimes against humanity unit for “second-degree murder” of freelance journalist Rémi Ochlik and “attempted murder” of freelance journalist Edith Bouvier. At the time, the French government was strongly opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The journalists were victims of an airstrike that targeted the press centre in Homs.

Though the on-going conflict has made the investigation difficult, the special attention given the matter has ensured that the investigating judge has the resources necessary to follow all leads and to keep up the pressure on all those involved.

RSF, a civil party in the case, hopes that the investigation will remain active and that all testimony from identified witnesses can be taken as soon as possible.

RSF encourages the next minister of justice, who will be appointed in the next few days, to support cooperation with justice institutions of the countries involved in these cases. Where possible, French embassies may efficiently furnish material assistance to local investigations in progress.

France, has an important role to play at the international level in the fight against impunity. These investigations also underline the fundamental role that journalists play as messengers of democratic values. Those who have been killed, wounded or have disappeared were precisely carrying out their mission of reporting the truth. To not uncover the circumstances behind what happened to them amounts to denying their commitment to serve the public.

Accordingly, RSF has launched a campaign at the United Nations for appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the safety of journalists. The aim is to put in place a specific mechanism for applying international law. This will allow the carrying out of numerous UN resolutions on the protection of journalists, and the fight against impunity. All too often, these have gone unfulfilled.

Over the past five years alone, RSF has registered 388 journalists killed worldwide in connection with their work.

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Updated on 15.05.2017