Getting away with murder

Robert Mahoney
Published in the Guardian ‘s Comment is Free blog
May 2, 2008

As published in the Guardian ‘s blog

In Britain, to silence a bothersome journalist you hire a lawyer. In much of the developing world, you hire an assassin. Killing a reporter in Russia or Mexico costs just a few thousand dollars. And on current police performance you’ll never get caught.

Around the world, politicians, corrupt officials and crime bosses are literally getting away with murder. Journalists are dying in unprecedented numbers for doing their job. Probing an arms deal in Russia is a death sentence. Questioning the authority of the security services in Pakistan’s tribal areas is a passport to oblivion.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has been painstakingly recording journalists’ deaths for 17 years and built up a unique database. An analysis compiled ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3 has revealed many horrifying trends. But none is more shocking than the number of killings of journalists where no one is prosecuted for the crime.

Such impunity is the scourge of the independent press in a broad swathe of countries from Colombia to the Philippines. It sends a signal to anyone keen to avoid public scrutiny that it’s open season on reporters. Shoot a journalist, let the public see that the crime will never come before a court, and sit back and watch the rest of the press censor itself out of mortal fear.

The tactic works with sickening efficiency for the drug kingpins and their puppet policemen in northern Mexico where most journalists have scaled back coverage of organised crime to virtually zero. The climate of fear in Russia has reduced investigative journalism to a handful of small-scale newspapers whose staff know that stepping out of line could earn them the same fate as the 14 reporters who have already been permanently silenced since Vladimir Putin became president.

CPJ has compiled the first-ever Impunity Index to track the lack of justice for journalists worldwide. Countries with five or more unsolved journalist killings qualify for inclusion. Heading the list are Iraq, Sierra Leone and Somalia – countries that for years have been mired in conflict. It is hardly surprising that journalists, along with human rights activists and lawyers can be murdered with complete impunity in states with a weak central government and judicial system. Even in these circumstances the journalists are targeted for death, not caught in crossfire on the battlefield.

But the bulk of the 13 countries on the Impunity Index are not failed states but functioning peacetime democracies such as Mexico, the Philippines and Russia.

What also jumps out of the figures is the dire state of impunity in South Asia. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan all make it on to this roll of dishonour.

India, the world’s largest democracy with a relatively free press, is a deadly place for reporters covering local politics and organised crime, with five unsolved killings still on the books. Among them is newspaper reporter Prahlad Goala, who was run down by a truck and then stabbed in 2006 after writing about timber smuggling in Assam.

Pakistan has an even worse record, with eight journalists murdered with impunity in the last 10 years. In most cases the authorities make little effort to investigate let alone bring the killers and those who pay them to justice. It seems that only if the killing causes uproar abroad will the authorities be moved to act. Of all the murders of journalists in Pakistan only the case of US reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and then beheaded in Karachi, has been investigated to any result or degree of competence.

The same lack of prosecutorial vigour is evident in Russia. It has been more than a year and a half since Anna Politkovskaya, arguably the country’s most prominent investigative reporter, was shot dead outside her home. No one has been convicted for the crime. As in Pakistan, it took the slaying of a foreigner for the prosecution service to bestir itself. Two men were actually charged in the Moscow murder of Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the magazine Forbes Russia. They were acquitted in a closed-door trial in 2006 and no other convictions have been secured.

By highlighting this appalling blight on press freedom CPJ hopes to pressure and shame law enforcement into action, especially in those countries with a working if weakened media. One ray of hope is the Philippines despite its record of 24 unsolved journalists’ murders. By publicising the killings, which often occur in remote provinces, and hiring lawyers to push for investigations, press freedom groups are putting impunity in front of the government in Manila. The case of reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat, who was shot dead in front of her children, could prove a turning point. After a blaze of publicity the two triggermen were convicted in 2006. Now the two masterminds of the murder are to stand trial.

A strategy that appears to work in a pluralistic society like the Philippines may not bring convictions in tightly-controlled Russia or lawless Afghanistan but it’s a start.

For more articles about World Press Freedom Day click here.

© 2008 Newsweek, Inc.  Reprinted with permission.