Five years ago last month, on Vladimir Putin’s birthday, Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in the lift of her Moscow apartment building. The Novaya gazeta journalist, who had written at length about Putin’s brutal and brutalising campaign in the northern Caucasus, was shot twice in the chest, once in the shoulder, and once in the head at point-blank range.

She had recently published a series of articles about people who had been jailed and tortured in Chechnya after they were accused of being terrorists. In her infamous meeting with Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, he told her: “You’re an enemy. To be shot.” She was, and Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank attended his recent, multimillion dollar birthday party.

Politkovskaya remains the most iconographic of slain journalists, and the investigation into her death the most tragic and farcical of all such investigations. Five years after her murder, the person who ordered it is no closer to being named, let alone charged. The same three men that were acquitted of the crime two years ago were this year charged with it again, presumably in the interest of generating at least some sense that at least something was being done about that bloodied lift. The investigators have often appeared less interested in actually solving the case than in establishing a narrative that will appease the Kremlin and, even better, discredit its enemies.

The past five years have been bloody ones for journalists, and unjust ones to boot. And Russia is not the only example. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange, which has labelled today the International Day to End Impunity, has profiled one slain journalist on its website every day this month in order to emphasise the scale of the problem.

The list makes for harrowing reading. Of those killed after 2006 — some unsolved murders, in places such as Congo and Turkey, date to the early 1990s — most lost their lives in Mexico. Misael Tamayo Hernández was discovered in a motel room in Zihuatanejo in November 2006, n-ked and with his hands tied behind his back. The three small puncture marks on his arm suggested that the journalist, who had written a great deal about local corruption, may have been given a lethal injection.

In 2008, José Armando Rodríguez Carreón, a crime reporter at El Diario de Juárez, was gunned down in his driveway while preparing to take his daughter to school. Two prosecutors investigating the case were later killed within a month of each other.

One might cite another two, more recent, examples from the same country. Both represented grisly firsts. At the beginning of September this year, Ana María Marcela Yarce Viveros, a veteran journalist who helped found the political news magazine Contralinea, and freelancer Rocío González Trápaga were found slain in a working-class suburb of Mexico City, n-ked and with hands and feet bound. The pair appeared to have been strangled. It was the first time journalists had been murdered in the nation’s capital. By the end of the month, María Elizabeth Macías Castro had become the first journalist to be murdered for tweeting the news, her body found decapitated next to a computer keyboard and a placard warning other online reporters to watch themselves.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ 2011 Impunity Index, Mexico remains the eighth most dangerous country for journalists in the world, though this year’s bumper crop of bodies is set to see it shoot up next year’s list. Russia follows close behind, in ninth position, having improved slightly since the last index after no targeted murders of journalists were reported last year for the first time in 11 years.

That nearly wasn’t the case. The country may have fared worse on the index had Kommersant’s Oleg Kashin, who was beaten half to death a year ago this month, not managed to pull through after receiving 56 blows with a crowbar. His attackers have, unsurprisingly, been neither caught nor charged. (“I’m a realist,” Kashin told Foreign Policy‘s Julia Ioffe earlier this month, explaining why he was not expecting them to be. “I understand the country we live in.”) Russia may have fallen a place in the index, but it remains true that more than 150 journalists were reportedly threatened or attacked there in the first 10 months of this year.

If I focus on Mexico and Russia it is only because I was travelled around  the former last year and am to travel around the latter next. Both fared better in the CPJ’s index than Iraq, where none of the 92 targeted media killings of the past decade have been solved, and that saw a spike in such killings last year. They also fared better than Somalia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Colombia (where the situation nevertheless improved for the fourth consecutive year), Afghanistan and Nepal. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil and India rounded out the top 13. (Pakistan, like Mexico, is expected to rank higher next year after an especially bloody 12 months.)

Like political assassinations, or the murder of human rights campaigners, the killing of media workers is as much a symbolic act as a practical or strategic one. Preventing Kashin from calling the governor of Pskov Oblast “shitty”, or Castro from tweeting that the Los Zetas cartel are “rats”, is all very good and well. But the real point is to warn Kommersant or Novaya gazeta, El Diario de Juárez or Nuevo Laredo en vivo, to bite their tongues.

The murder of Luis Carlos Santiago Orozco in Ciudad Juárez a year ago last September certainly had the desired effect. The day after Mexico’s Bicentenary of Independence, somewhere towards the end of his lunch hour, the 21-year-old photographer was gunned down in broad daylight. Driving a car owned by lawyer and human rights activist Gustavo de la Rosa, who many believe may have been the real target of the hit, Santiago was an intern and had only been working at the newspaper for two weeks.

The response of El Diario de Juárez was to publish an unprecedented open letter to the cartels. “We want you to explain to us what you want from us,” the letter read. “Tell us what we are supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by.” In a country where, in some regions, the drug cartels effectively control the press, El Diario‘s acquiescence to them was hardly out of the ordinary. But the public manner in which it did so, especially after its previously rather defiant coverage of the drug war, was striking. The paper has bitten its tongue ever since.

But putting the occasional bullet in a journalist is not the only thing that goes unpunished in these countries. Emphasising the death of journalists, and the attack on free speech that such deaths entail, is important and necessary, and we should be thankful that there is a day dedicated to doing so. But impunity, like cancer, comes in many forms, erodes the social body from the blood and bones as often as from the organs and lymph nodes.

Mexico’s drug war, in particular, is one big fiesta of impunity. Drug cartels have commandeered the illegal migration routes and have expanded, unpunished, into industrial-scale kidnapping of indocumentados. The country’s military, which is supposed to be fighting the cartels, has had more than 5000 human rights complaints issued against it over the past five years.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released earlier this month, the crimes that soldiers have been accused of include torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and the forced disappearance of civilians. Few complaints have been properly investigated, and fewer than 30 have resulted in conviction. In Russia, such crimes are the prerogative of the state security apparatus, the FSB, and it was her coverage of its happiness to commit and get away with them that arguably got Politkovskaya murdered.

Putin himself has benefited hugely from his country’s culture of impunity. In the early 1990s, Russia’s current Prime Minister famously dodged an inquiry into his corrupt mismanagement of the Committee for External Relation in the St Petersburg mayor’s office, which issued licences permitting the export of metals valued at $93 million in exchange for food aid that never came to the city, and today is not only set to return to the presidency but is said to be worth a cool $40 billion.

If murdering a journalist is an attack on freedom of expression, then letting a murderer get away with it is an attack on our fundamental notions of justice. Worse, this latter attack is committed, not by those doing the killing, but very often by ourselves, when we choose to look the other way.

Australia may not have a problem with journalists being murdered and their killers going unpunished — the Balibo Five remain a sobering exception to the rule — but we should nevertheless take care not to underestimate our own capacity for turning a blind eye. Last Saturday marked the seventh anniversary of Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death in custody on Queensland’s Palm Island. In March this year, the state’s police force announced that it would take no action against the six officers who investigated the death, for which Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, now an acting-inspector on the Gold Coast, was acquitted in 2007.

Whatever one thinks of Occupy Wall Street’s methods and madness, it is not too difficult to see that they, too, are railing against certain culpable but unpunished criminals, who may not have necessarily killed anybody, but who certainly destroyed a few.

Whether enabled by the tacit consent of officialdom, in the cases of Russia and Pakistan, or the practical irrelevance of officialdom, in those of Mexico and Iraq, the ability of murderers and other criminals to evade justice remains a significant problem. This is not because the murderers and other criminals are any smarter in these countries, of course, but rather because, when it comes to pursuing the evasive, justice often lacks the willpower.

Which is why the answer isn’t to increase the number of police officers in the northern Caucasus or soldiers on the US-Mexican border. The answer is to institute reform of these countries’ political and judicial systems so that they may develop such willpower. And to ensure, as much as possible, that ours don’t all of a sudden lose theirs.

*Matthew Clayfield has worked as a freelance correspondent in the US, Mexico and Cuba. Currently preparing to cover the Russian presidential election in 2012, he is partially financing his project with reader donations and crowdsourced funds. You can contribute here.