105 dead journalists – The fight for press freedom

On Friday the International Federation of Journalists released its report on the 105 journalists who were murdered while reporting the news in 2013. From Russia to the Philippines to Mexico, journalists were not only killed in war zones, but assassinated for the stories they were reporting. Most disturbingly, many of them were most likely killed on the orders of people in government or in the police. So who were these journalists who paid the ultimate price for their reporting? Who targets them? And why is this so important to our society?

Barbara Demick in Sarajevo Holiday Inn, 1994 (John Costello)

The report (you can read it in full here) makes for grim reading. The most deaths were in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, with 60 journalists murdered across, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the Philippines, Syria and Iraq. In Africa and the Americas 42 were killed, with the remaining 3 deaths occurring in Russia.  These are some of the journalists listed in the IFJ report.

Russia: Nikolai Potapov, editor of a local newspaper, was shot to death after exposing corruption in the local government of Stavropol.
Mali: Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were kidnapped and shot in Mali after interviewing a leader of a separatist group.
Brazil: Rodrigo Neto de Faria was shot outside his home after reporting on corruption in the police in the city of Belo Horizonte.
India: Jitendra Singh was killed by a Maoist group after reporting on their activities.
Syria: Mohamed Ahmed Taysir Bellou, a reporter with an opposition news agency, was shot by a Syrian Army sniper.

These deaths reflect some of the lethal difficulties journalists face: exposing corruption, dealing with terrorist, criminal or rebel groups, and reporting from war zones. The dangers in reporting from warzones are obvious, and journalists have been facing those dangers throughout the modern era. Tragically combatants in a warzone often place very little value on the lives of journalists, and sometimes even see them as spies or “propagandists for the enemy”. This isn’t just a threat from Third World armies. On April 8, 2003 three journalists were killed in Baghdad by US forces, firstly when Al-Jazeera’s office was hit by missiles, then after a tank fired a round into the hotel used by all foreign journalists.

It also comes as little surprise that journalists are a target for terrorists and criminals. By reporting on their activities and the innocents who suffer, journalists automatically become a target. The Taliban in Pakistan is known for targeting media organisations who “don’t give enough airtime to Taliban views”. Just one month ago three employees of Express News were shot in their van in Karachi. The Pakistani Taliban said they had done it because Express News was acting as a “propagandist and as rival party [sic]”.

However, the greatest threat to journalists remains their own governments. Throughout the IFJ report, we keep seeing the words “exposed corruption in…” In South and South East Asia, Iraq and Latin America the greatest threat to journalists is being gunned down in the street because of their work on corruption. These men and women dig up information on connections between the police and the drug trade, bribery and dishonesty in building projects, corrupt and powerful officials, and this cannot be tolerated by the powerful people being investigated. The chances of the real killers being arrested is close to zero. The fact that their killers often come from the ranks of the police or government mean that cases are never even properly investigated. After the Russian investigative journalist and critic of Vladimir Putin, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot in her own lift in 2006 it took numerous trials for a low ranking policeman to be convicted of pulling the trigger. Whoever gave the order for the killing has never been found.

So why should the fact that 105 journalists were murdered in 2013 be so important to the world? When journalists are killed for pursuing a story, it sends a clear message to other journalists to leave that story alone. Far too often that is the end of it. Very real fear puts a stop to reporting, and allows governments to continue their corrupt activities. In Pakistan in 2011 an investigative journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad was kidnapped and beaten to death. He had been investigating links between the Pakistani army and Islamist groups. A colleague of his told Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker:

“I don’t want to get killed like Saleem…I used to look for stories that would open people’s eyes. Now I am just a stupid correspondent doing stupid stories. And I am happy.”

This is why journalists are murdered. The free press is a threat to governments everywhere, exposing their mistakes and evils. Fortunately most governments in the world can still see the benefit of this free reporting for society. Others however take violent steps to make sure journalists live in fear.

In most countries when a police officer is killed, enormous effort is devoted to finding the killers. By attacking the police you attack one of the symbols of society; the force society has chosen to protect itself from crime. The same principle must apply to journalists. When you attack a journalist, you attack the whole idea of a free press, the group which gives society the information it needs. Until governments everywhere do their utmost to stop the killing of journalists, freedom of the press will remain in danger.

The grave of journalist Anna Politkovskaya

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2 thoughts on “105 dead journalists – The fight for press freedom

  1. Pingback: Islamic State – The murder of a journalist | Your World Explained

  2. Pingback: An IS reporter, ghost ships, and the NYPD | Your World Explained

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