Attacks on the Press   |   Colombia, Iraq, Philippines, Russia

Attacks on the Press 2007: Preface

By Christiane Amanpour

Murder is a terrifying reality for independent journalists around the world. A group or government embarrassed by a critical report hires a gunman rather than a lawyer to silence the messenger. More than 60 journalists were killed for their work in 2007, the second-deadliest year for the press that CPJ has ever documented.

In the Hollywood version, reporters and photographers die covering wars. They are caught in crossfire or are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. To be sure, journalists are killed in combat--but those cases are the exception. In these pages you will see that murder is the main cause of work-related deaths among journalists. Seven out of 10 victims are targeted and hunted down, then shot, bludgeoned, or stabbed.

This fact is chilling enough. What is even more outrageous is that 85 percent of these murders are carried out with impunity. The killers and those who hire them walk away. To colleagues left behind, the message is clear: Stop reporting anything sensitive. In too many countries, that message is heeded. Journalists censor themselves and a whole society is the poorer, deprived of vital information and the ability to hold those in power to account.

On the face of it, the situation offers little hope. How, for example, can reporters in provincial Russia or rural Colombia protect themselves against powerful local officials or paramilitary groups? Faced with ineffective law enforcement, corrupt courts, and weak institutions, media owners and their staffs seem to stand alone.

They do not. Based on its 26 years of experience in fighting attacks on the press, CPJ believes passionately that advocacy can make a difference.

I have been to many countries--Russia and Iraq and others--where I have witnessed the violent and lawless climate that allows journalists to be silenced. When Russia's intrepid investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot at point-blank range on October 7, 2006, her murder was designed to send a message to all those who dared challenge the system. As her friend and family lawyer said, "When you kill, when you silence, the bravest journalist, it makes all the others think twice."

I have been very lucky myself, but many of my friends and colleagues in Iraq have been killed or injured by groups hostile to the notion of an independent press. Societies cannot thrive without journalists brave enough to put themselves on the line for important stories.

CPJ is now launching a comprehensive campaign to combat impunity. The strategy is simple. Garner human and financial resources to investigate journalist murders thoroughly and in a timely manner; publicize the killings and the findings of the official inquiries; pressure law-enforcement authorities and prosecutors through lobbying, public campaigns, and lawsuits; and finally, provide assistance to the families of victims to help them win justice.

It is high time for such a campaign. The support of international colleagues buoys local journalists and gives them courage to continue to tell their stories. The CPJ campaign, supported by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has been launched with pilot projects in two of the world's most murderous nations for the press, the Philippines and Russia. Strategies are tailored to meet conditions that vary greatly between regions. For example, taking out advertisements to highlight journalist killings can be a successful technique in the Philippines, which boasts multiple, diverse, and independent media. In Russia, no broadcast or print outlet would dare run such ads. Meticulous research of journalist killings coupled with continuous international advocacy is a better approach toward the Kremlin, which has long dragged its feet on combating impunity.

Since 2000, when President Vladimir Putin came to power, 17 Russian journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work. Fourteen of them were murdered, and most of these were shot execution-style. In all that time, convictions have been secured in only one case. The Russian government has not been slow, however, to move against journalists themselves. It has progressively narrowed the boundaries of what is permissible to report. A series of measures adopted over the past two years effectively equates critical journalism with "extremism." Simply reporting on terrorist groups could in itself be construed as illegal. This dark shadow of censorship is now creeping across central Asia, as Russia's neighbors, all former Soviet states, take their cue from an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.

Combating impunity is daunting. Yet after working extensively with local journalists' groups, CPJ has helped bring about success in the prosecution of journalist murder cases. In a breakthrough verdict in Russia, five people were convicted in 2007 in the murder of reporter Igor Domnikov seven years earlier. In the Philippines, gunmen were recently convicted in the murders of two journalists, including the 2005 slaying of investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat. Even so, Russia and the Philippines are among the worst in solving journalist murders, obtaining convictions in only about one in 10 cases.

Impunity is the single biggest threat facing journalists today. Murder, after all, is the ultimate form of censorship. That is why this book is so important. It reflects CPJ's work in documenting assaults on journalists and their right to gather and distribute information and opinion--the lifeblood of a healthy society.

Christiane Amanpour is CNN's chief international correspondent. In her 24 years at CNN, she has reported extensively from the Middle East, the Balkans, and war zones across Africa.

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