How CPJ researches the killing and jailing of journalists

Who is a journalist? In the era of citizen journalism, activist journalism and now “fake” journalism, the question is not academic.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has just published its annual census of journalists in prison and next week it will release its survey of killed journalists.

Each year repressive and authoritarian regimes will challenge the names on those lists. Turkey will call the reporters it has imprisoned “terrorists” or “subversives.” China will hurl accusations of “propagandist” or “separatist” at the journalists and commentators languishing in its prisons.

And criminal organizations in Latin America, often in collusion with authorities, will kill journalists and accuse them of working as publicists for their rival groups, an accusation that often echoes a government’s account.

The best way for CPJ to advocate for at-risk journalists, or to push for justice when journalists are killed, is to document their cases meticulously. And that is what our staff of regional and national experts do. We spend hundreds of hours interviewing the family members and colleagues of slain or jailed journalists to ascertain whether they were targeted as a direct result of their journalistic work. We pore over charge sheets and court documents, scour social media accounts and published articles. Our goal is to answer not the question whether the person self-identified as a journalist but whether that person was engaged in acts of journalism: gathering and publishing news, research-based opinion, or commentary. This includes individuals, who on their own gather news and post it online without the support of a formal organization.

If there is significant doubt about whether an individual was working as a journalist we will not place him or her on the list.

This caution means that our statistics for killed and imprisoned journalists may differ from figures issued by other human rights and press freedom groups.

Turkey is a case in point. Since the failed military coup attempt in July 2016, the government issued a state of emergency and rounded up more than 140 journalists. We tracked the revolving door of detentions and releases and by the time of our annual snapshot of global imprisonment on December 1, our team of Turkish and international researchers could confirm a link to journalistic activity in the imprisonment of 81 journalists; we had investigated an additional 67 cases in which we could not make the link.

Researching individual cases was complicated by a pervasive sense of fear in Turkish society in the aftermath of the attempted putsch. In some of the 67 cases left off the census, there was no publicly available information about the arrests; in other cases, authorities had sealed investigations and had refused access to the case files even to the journalists’ legal representatives; in yet another group of cases, CPJ was unable to reach the journalists’ legal representatives or lawyers refused to talk to CPJ for fear of causing additional trouble for themselves or their clients.

CPJ’s final tally of 81, however, is one of many data sets on offer to the wider public. A quick Google search for jailed Turkish journalists reveals ranges from 145 by Turkey Purge, a group of young local journalists, to 40 in the census by Reporters without Borders. No matter the disparity, the fact remains that Turkey now jails more journalists than any other country and on that we can all agree.

Variations in tallies have been common ever since we began compiling prison and killed data in the early 1990s. The criteria we apply are universal and so differences between our lists and those of our partner organizations exist beyond Turkey to include other major jailers of journalists such as China, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iran. Nevertheless, research by the press freedom community collectively does unearth sufficient data to highlight major trends and pinpoint who are the main jailers and killers of the press.

Following our methodology, when faced with minimal information about a detained journalist we may be forced to leave the name off our census, but that does not mean we give up. We persevere with our investigation and reach out to the journalistic community for any scrap of information. Our goal is to not let secretive regimes off the hook by giving up on those they have imprisoned simply for lack of intelligence.

Answering the who-is-a-journalist question is even more problematic when it comes to murders and cross-fire deaths.

The fighting in Syria over the past five years spawned hundreds of citizen journalists and activists who have posed a particular challenge for our Middle East team. Fewer than 20 percent of the initially reported killings of journalists the team has investigated have made it onto our killed list because intensive digging has revealed that the journalist was in fact an activist or combatant, or was not killed as a direct result of their work. In a few cases we have even found that people reported dead were actually still alive.

In 2013, a citizen journalist was killed covering clashes in western Syria. Amid hours of YouTube videos from the media center for which he worked, a split second of footage caught our researchers’ attention–a shadow at the bottom of the frame and the sound of nearby gunfire. The shadow, it turned out, was a gun held by the cameraman. We could not be certain that the citizen journalist had not also fought, so we did not include him on our list of journalists killed. The need for thorough research is evident in the case of murders outside of war zones too. Mexico and Central America have been a headache for researchers for years with multiple targeted killings by drug cartels, organized crime, and complicit officials.

There, criminal justice systems that are overburdened and dysfunctional, grant impunity to journalists’ murderers and leave the media wide open to attacks. The lack of exhaustive and timely investigations in many cases makes it extremely difficult for CPJ to determine a motive.

In recent years, amid the violence and instability caused by organized crime and corruption, Honduras and Guatemala have experienced an alarming rise in the number of murders of journalists. Near complete impunity for these crimes means the cases go mostly unsolved and the motives unexplained, as CPJ research shows. For example in Mexico this year, CPJ reported on nine cases of murdered journalists but could confirm only two of them due to the lack of proper official investigations. This represents a consistent trend in Mexico where only 37 out of 86 cases (43 percent) since 1992 have been confirmed. In Brazil, in contrast, where investigations have made significant progress, 39 of the 51 cases (76 percent) since 1992 are confirmed.

Our research standards also include transparency. We write up every case in detail with all of our sources for all to see. That opens our research up to public scrutiny that we invite, because we’re in the business of getting it right.

Even with all our meticulous research and diligent cross-checking, our lists can never be definitive. Dictators usually have an interest in hiding or downplaying the truth about the numbers of journalists they lock up. Most corrupt officials or criminals obviously do not want to run the risk, no matter how slight, of future prosecution by admitting to homicide.

What we do, however, through our research is provide a baseline of annual data from which to establish trends and build a narrative with which to confront the jailers and killers and hold them to account.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The 15th paragraph has been corrected to reflect that CPJ did not include a journalist who may have participated in fighting on its list of journalists killed.