Dying to tell

Robert Mahoney
The Guardian online
May 3, 2007


The appalling reality of journalism today in many countries is that a notebook or a camera can be a death sentence. In the past 15 years more than 600 reporters, editors, columnists, photojournalists and media support staff have been killed for their work, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The Hollywood image of the intrepid foreign reporter is that of James Woods in the thick of a civil war in the film, Salvador, or Jennifer Connolly unearthing the truth in Blood Diamond. War correspondents do sometimes get caught in crossfire or executed by despots for being “spies”, but a little-known journalism statistic is that few of the correspondents who die are killed on the battlefield: seven out of 10 are murdered after being deliberately targeted for what they have written or aired. They are hunted down and shot by professional hit men, beaten to death by hired thugs, or simply “disappeared”.

Political journalists uncovering corruption in Africa, crime reporters exposing drug traffickers in Mexico, defence correspondents probing the movements of al-Qaida on the porous Afghan-Pakistani border, have all paid with their lives.

Not surprisingly, Iraq tops the list of the deadliest places to be a journalist over the past 25 years of CPJ’s existence.

More than 100 journalists have been killed there since the US-led invasion in 2003. Of those 80% were Iraqis, the eyes and ears of the foreign press and the backbone of the new post-Saddam media. Most of them were murdered for their profession. They were not hit by a suicide bomber or a stray bullet because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although in the thick of the conflict, television correspondent Atwar Bahjat, a household name to millions of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya viewers, was not an unintended victim. She was hunted down and brutally killed with her two-man camera crew covering the aftermath of the Askariya shrine bombing in Samarra last year. Bahjat, 30, was regarded as a true independent journalist threading her way through Iraq’s sectarian minefield. Her killers drove around asking for the whereabouts of “the presenter.”

Only the Algerian civil war of the 1990s comes close to Iraq as a killing field for the press, according to CPJ’s research, with 60 deaths. The third deadliest country for reporters is Russia, with more than 40 deaths.

Russia is a case study in the threats faced by investigative journalists who touch a political or financial nerve in a country with a centralised, ruling elite. In the seven years that President Vladimir Putin has been in the Kremlin 13 journalists have been killed, execution style.

The most recent was Anna Politkovskaya, a thorn in Putin’s flesh with her relentless reporting on the brutal fighting in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was shot while carrying groceries outside her Moscow apartment building last October. The slaying, which was condemned worldwide, bore the hallmarks of a professional hit. It was also typical of most other journalist murders in Russia and the former Soviet states in that those responsible have never been found.

Of the 13 murder cases since 2000, which include the killing of US journalist Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbes Russia, only three have gone to trial and nobody has yet been convicted.

That record of impunity is echoed around the world. When it comes to killing journalists, the assassins and those who hire them are rarely prosecuted. CPJ research shows that more than 85% of journalists’ murders are unsolved.

Such a climate of impunity encourages more murders and has a chilling effect on press freedom generally. Nowhere is this truer than in Latin America where the CPJ has found rampant self-censorship among reporters and editors in countries such as Colombia and Mexico where challenging organised crime or paramilitary interests spells a certain bullet.

In Africa, although the overall number of journalist deaths is relatively low (in part due to self-censorship), reporters who do push the limits of investigative reporting are ruthlessly silenced and their killers rarely prosecuted.

Newspaper editor Deyda Hydara was killed in the Gambia in December 2004 and his assassins are still at large. French-Canadian journalist Guy-André Kieffer was killed in April 2004 while reporting on corruption in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast , and his killers were not brought to book. Perhaps the longest wait for justice on the continent is in Burkina Faso where Norbert Zongo was riddled with bullets in a December 1998 ambush after doggedly investigating President Blaise Compaoré’s government over allegations of torture and murder.

The killings of journalists like these in Africa or of the many radio presenters, who have died in the Philippines, rarely make international headlines. But for every Daniel Pearl or Anna Politkovskaya there are scores of writers and photographers who perish in pursuit of truth. World Press Freedom Day is a time to remember them.