WHO KILLS JOURNALISTS AND WHY? Report by the Committee to Protect Journalists to the Committee of Inquiry

Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 23, 2005
—The Committee to Protect Journalists has analyzed the deaths of journalists across the world for many years, producing two recent reports that highlight alarming trends in the circumstances, locations, and motives.

At least 339 journalists were killed on duty between 1995 and 2004, according to CPJ research compiled in January. But the vast majority did not die on any battlefield, or while covering a dangerous assignment. They were murdered in cold blood, in reprisal for their work or to prevent them from doing their jobs.

No fewer than 246 journalists were murdered during that 10-year period, according to CPJ research, or 72 percent of the journalists killed on duty. These journalists were beaten, stabbed, or shot to death in gangland-style assassinations. Worldwide, more than 85 percent of journalist killings have gone unsolved.

In a second report, marking World Press Freedom Day, May 3, CPJ called murder with impunity the most urgent threat facing journalists worldwide. CPJ identified the Philippines as the most murderous country for journalists, followed by Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh, and Russia. These five countries alone account for half of the murders of journalist worldwide in the past five years.

The deadly toll in these five most murderous countries is accompanied by longstanding government indifference to solving the crimes. Since January 1, 2000, not one of 58 journalist murders in those nations has been solved. Alleged gunmen have been arrested and charged in a small handful of cases, but no charges have ever been brought against those who directed the killings.

Other trends emerged in CPJ’s analyses:

  • In the vast majority of cases, journalists were murdered in retaliation for reporting on government corruption, crime, drug trafficking, or the activities of rebel groups.
  • Time and again, murders were reported in the same lawless regions. Six have been slain in Mindanao in the Philippines since 2000. Another eight were hunted down and killed in the violent Khulna district of Bangladesh during that time.
  • Even in war zones such as Iraq, journalists were frequently targeted in reprisal for their work. Nearly a third of journalists who have died on duty since hostilities began were slain by insurgents. Many of the victims were Iraqi journalists targeted by insurgents because of their affiliation—real or perceived—with coalition forces, foreign organizations, or political entities
  • Many of the slain journalists were overtly threatened beforehand, illustrating the brazen nature of their killers.

Although few cases draw international attention, intense scrutiny makes a crucial difference. After a campaign organized by the media and citizens, Mozambique brought to justice the killers of reporter Carlos Cardoso, who was murdered in 2000. And in the Ukraine, sustained public scrutiny of the unsolved 2000 killing of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze helped bring about progress in the long-stalled murder probe.

But most murders of journalists are largely unnoticed outside of their own nations. In Pakistan this February, assailants with automatic rifles opened fire on a bus filled with journalists who had covered the surrender of a suspected tribal leader. Amir Nowab of Associated Press Television, and Wana Allah Noor of Kyber TV were killed. In April, Mexican reporter Dolores Guadalupe García Escamilla was shot repeatedly in front of her radio station after she reported on crimes that included drug trafficking. She died 11 days later.

Where scant attention is paid and little pressure applied, CPJ found, the killers of journalists usually go unpunished. As we have seen in the most murderous countries, from the Philippines to Russia, this deadly cycle is perpetuated every time another journalist is attacked with no response from authorities.

Killings in Conflict
No fewer than 41 journalists have been killed in Iraq since hostilities began in March 2003. Insurgent actions are responsible for 56 percent of the deaths of journalists in Iraq to date. Insurgent forces have killed journalists in suicide bombings, crossfire incidents, and in targeted killings.

U.S. military fire is the next leading cause, accounting for nine journalist deaths, or 22 percent of the overall toll. Journalists have died in U.S. bomb, rocket and aerial attacks; they have been killed by U.S. fire at or near checkpoints and roadblocks.

Attacks that target civilians—which include many of the tactics used by insurgents in Iraq—reflect a breach in the rules of war. There is no evidence to conclude that the U.S. military has deliberately targeted the press in Iraq, but the record does show that U.S. forces do not take adequate precautions to ensure that journalists can work safely. And when journalists are killed, the U.S. military is often unwilling to launch an adequate investigation or take steps to mitigate risk. Official investigations have been conducted in only three cases in which journalists were killed by U.S. forces.

The military did investigate an April 2003 incident in which a U.S. tank fired on Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists and wounding three others. The military’s report shed light on some details, but it failed to answer a crucial question: Why did U.S. commanders who knew the Palestine Hotel was filled with journalists not relay this information to the troops who attacked the upper floors with a high-incendiary rocket? In our own report issued in May 2003, CPJ concluded that the killing of the journalists, while not deliberate, was avoidable.

The U.S. military also investigated the August 2003 shooting of award-winning Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana by a U.S. soldier with an armored unit. The investigation quoted the soldier as saying he mistook the journalist’s shoulder-mounted television camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Another factor in his decision to shoot, the soldier said, was that Dana was “wearing a black shirt and pants,” and had “dark skin and dark hair.”

In their report on the Dana shooting, U.S. investigators recommended that the military review its rules of engagement. The same report recommended that the U.S. military improve communications concerning the presence of journalists in conflict zones and improve communications with journalists on the ground. Yet the U.S. military has given little or no indication that it has followed through on these recommendations, despite repeated urging by CPJ and news organizations.

More than two years after the start of hostilities, U.S. military checkpoints and roadblocks remain a major safety concern for all civilians, including journalists. U.S. investigators issued a series of recommendations to improve checkpoint safety after probing a March shooting that left Italian intelligence agent Nicola Calipari dead and journalist Guiliana Sgrena wounded. Investigators recommended the military “consider the use of additional non-lethal measures (e.g., spike strips, temporary speed bumps, and wire) be emplaced to slow down or stop vehicles before the use of disabling shots. The intent is to provide as many non-lethal options as possible before asking a soldier to focus on firing the weapon.” CPJ and others have repeatedly urged the military to address this vital issue.

In other cases, such as the April 2003 U.S. warplane attack that killed reporter Tareq Ayyoub of Al-Jazeera in its Baghdad bureau, the U.S. military has failed to launch any investigation at all. This has fueled charges from journalists that Al-Jazeera’s Iraq office was targeted by U.S. forces—understandable speculation given the fact that the station’s office in Kabul, Afghanistan, was similarly bombed two years earlier by U.S. forces.

Seeking solutions
CPJ research has identified three primary circumstances in which journalists are killed. The vast majority of victims are murdered in their own countries and in reprisal for their work. A smaller number are deliberately targeted in conflict zones. A third group is killed unintentionally on the battlefield because of a variety of factors ranging from negligence by military troops to simple bad luck. Addressing each of these circumstances requires a different approach.

The best way to combat murder is to push governments to aggressively investigate and pursue those who carry out the killings. As the Gongadze and Cardoso cases make clear, governments respond to international and domestic pressure. Press freedom groups and journalists around the world need to draw attention to the killings and make the argument that the murder of a journalist is an attack on the collective right of a society to be informed.

In cases of battlefield killings in which a particular government may not have legal jurisdiction the issue is more complicated. Several ideas have been proposed. One seeks to modify the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols to make the targeting of journalists a specific war crime. Another would develop a universal press emblem that would identify journalists on the battlefield. In the view of CPJ, neither idea is workable.

It is already a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols to intentionally target any civilians, including journalists, so any specific provision would be redundant. It would also send the misleading message that journalists value their own lives more than those of other civilians. Combating impunity on the battlefield is clearly a major concern. The Committee of Inquiry should consider initiating discussions with the International Criminal Court in the Hague to gain a better understanding of what kinds of cases can be referred for prosecution.

A universal press emblem is also undesirable because it would require a licensing entity to determine who is and who is not a journalist. It would open the way to restrictions on the press by encouraging governments to establish regulatory controls on journalists within their own nations. An emblem could actually worsen security by identifying journalists to all those who might target them for violence.

The Coordinating Committee of Press Freedom Organizations, a consortium of press freedom groups, declared last year in Toronto that the emblem initiative is a “well-intentioned response to the appallingly large number of journalists killed” in conflict zones in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the committee said the effort “ignores the reality that nearly all those journalists who have been killed were either deliberately targeted or caught up in violence where no emblem would have helped them.”

“What is needed now,” the coordinating committee said, “is universal respect for existing rights and protections, and an end to the culture of impunity in which those who kill journalists are very rarely pursued by justice authorities.”

Strengthening the political will and capability for individual nations to prosecute the murders of journalists is a daunting task. But the murders of journalists—whether in the Philippines, Iraq, or Colombia—will not end until the perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable.

For those journalists who are killed on the battlefield, safety measures must be undertaken. Press freedom groups must exhort armed forces to make changes such as greater firepower discipline and more appropriate rules of engagement with regard to civilians, including journalists. We must also push armed forces to hold accountable individual soldiers and commanders who are responsible for needless deaths of civilians, including journalists.

That will require strengthening or establishing investigative mechanisms and, when required, pushing for the prosecution of those responsible for crimes or misconduct. This will not happen overnight, but understanding the problem is the first step toward fixing it. The Committee of Inquiry is a welcome start.