Georgy Gongadze, shown here the summer of 2000, was the first online journalist killed in retaliation for his work. (AFP/Dima Gavrish)
Georgy Gongadze, shown here the summer of 2000, was the first online journalist killed in retaliation for his work. (AFP/Dima Gavrish)

Finding common cause from first online journalist murder

The first online journalist killed for his work disappeared one night 12 years ago in the Ukraine. Georgy Gongadze, 31, left a colleague’s house to return home to his wife and two young children. He never arrived. Seven weeks later, a farmer, a few hours’ drive away, discovered the journalist’s headless corpse.

Gongadze edited the website Ukrainska Pravda and ran stories about corruption and cronyism like no one else in the nation’s state-dominated print and broadcast media. Later, the country’s then-president was implicated in an audiotape in which he was allegedly heard speaking to aides about the need for Gongadze’s murder.

The latest online journalist to die in retaliation for his work was executed last month in Syria. Government soldiers killed Abdel Karim al-Oqda, 27, and two of his friends before setting fire to the journalist’s house. Al-Oqda was preparing for a day’s work when the soldiers arrived at his home in the city of Hama. He was a cameraman for the Shaam News Network, a Damascus-based citizen news organization that has posted tens of thousands of videos on its website as well as on YouTube, much of which have also run on international news outlets including Al-Jazeera and the BBC.

Every year, for decades, journalists from print, radio, or television media have dominated the ranks of those targeted for murder or otherwise killed on the job–every year, that is, until 2008, when a new era began. The same year that Facebook gained 100 million users and Twitter began seeing exponential growth, online journalists around the world began getting killed and imprisoned at rates never before seen. Today, more than one-third of all journalists being killed, and almost half of all journalists being jailed, were working online when they were targeted.

Through the 2000s, anywhere from 24 to 74 journalists were killed every year, according to CPJ research, but only one or, at most, two online journalists were among them until 2008. Five online journalists were killed that year, comprising 12 percent of all journalists killed worldwide. CPJ research shows that last year, at least nine online journalists were killed, but this year already, a record 17 online journalists have been killed. If the trend continues, 2012 will mark the first year that more than one out of three journalists killed worldwide was working online.

Online journalists are increasingly ending up behind bars as well. In 2007, less than one out of three of all imprisoned journalists was working online when he or she was arrested or simply led away. But the watershed came, again, in 2008, when online journalists surpassed print and online journalists for the first time as the largest single category of journalists behind bars. Since then, online journalists have remained the largest group of journalists in jail, comprising 45 to 50 percent of all journalists imprisoned worldwide.

But the numbers tell only part of the story. Like with Gongadze and al-Oqda, there is a face and a life and a world of loved ones behind every imprisonment or killing.

Last month, I spoke about online journalists at risk with my colleague Danny O’Brien, CPJ’s Internet advocacy coordinator, at the Online News Association panel in San Francisco. One of the points I made was that most journalists who have been killed on the job–no matter their medium–have been murdered, while the rate of impunity–or the degree to which the killers get away with murder–has risen from nearly nine out of 10 cases over the past 20 years to more than nine of 10 cases since 2008.

During the panel, another colleague, Rosental Alves, a former top Brazilian journalist who today has no less than 13,271 Twitter followers online, talked about the need to create “a culture of security” to help train journalists–no matter their medium–on how to protect themselves in the face of myriad and evolving threats from violence to malware attacks.

There has been partial justice in Gongadze’s murder. In 2008, three police officers were convicted and sentenced in connection with the journalist’s abduction and murder, and in August 2011, Aleksei Pukach, a former Ukrainian general with the nation’s Interior Ministry, confessed in a closed court trial that he had murdered Gongadze at the behest of then-President Leonid Kuchma and other top officials, according to interviews with lawyers for the Gongadze family who were allowed to attend the proceedings.

But Pukach’s ongoing trial has been marred by irregularities, delays, and secrecy. And though authorities indicted Kuchma in 2011, they dropped the charges against him eight months later. He has never faced trial.

The first murder of an online journalist 12 years ago should alarm all reporters everywhere. And the threat of retaliation for critical work, the possibility of violence, and the likelihood of impunity should bring journalists of all kinds together, whether or not they work online.