Zone of Silence

The public is robbed of information when journalists are murdered
By Robert Mahoney

Journalist Avijit Roy founded the blog “Mukto-Mona,” or Free Thinker, as a forum for free expression and ideas that challenged the growing religious intolerance in his native Bangladesh. His blog for intellectual freedom cost him his life.

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Attacks on the Press book cover
Attacks on the Press book cover

The U.S.-Bangladeshi blogger and his wife were hacked and stabbed by suspected Islamist extremist assailants as they left a book fair in the capital, Dhaka, in 2015. Roy died; his wife was critically injured.

The brutality of the attack and the prominence of the victim shocked the country, but there was more to come. Four other bloggers were hacked or stabbed to death that same year in separate incidents, again by suspected extremists. No one has been prosecuted.

The barbarity of this unprecedented wave of attacks has achieved its aim: the silencing of unwelcome voices. Bloggers who have been threatened have left the country or dialed back their criticism, according to Bangladeshi journalists.

Rafida Ahmed lost her thumb during an attack by extremists that killed her husband, blogger Avijit Roy, in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka. (Reuters)
Rafida Ahmed lost her thumb during an attack by extremists that killed her husband, blogger Avijit Roy, in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. (Reuters)

This tactic of murderous intimidation has been used with similar chilling effect by other groups of religious extremists but also by purely criminal gangs.

The self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has specialized in gruesome executions of journalists, from beheading foreign hostages and posting videos of the murders on the web to lashing local reporters against trees as a warning to residents.

In Mexico, drug cartels hung the bodies of social media users from a bridge and staged a macabre tableau with the beheaded body of a social media activist as a warning to others who would report on or criticize their operations.

The killings are the ugly embodiment of censorship in states where the rule of law has either been eroded or collapsed, and is being replaced by codes enforced by criminals or religious and political fanatics.

The political, cultural and religious differences among South Asia, Mexico, and the Levant are obvious, but for a number of journalists and bloggers in these regions, censorship through extreme violence is a daily reality. The consequences for the audiences served by those reporters are the same: a zone of silence. The public is robbed of independent information, and in the case of IS, is fed “news” tailored to advance the interests of the group alone.

Censorship has always stalked free expression. From ancient China through imperial Rome to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the would-be tyranny-free United States, governments have behaved as if it is their duty to uphold public order and morality by curbing expression and criticism. Thus, when Saudi blogger Raif Badawi “defamed” religion in 2012, it was the Saudi state that ordered him imprisoned and flogged.

But in Bangladesh, machete-wielding thugs took it upon themselves to silence what they considered the religious slander of Avijit Roy. Fanatics of various stripes have also long threatened journalists, but their numbers are growing, and states are failing to rein them in. Impunity in the murder of journalists is one of the biggest challenges facing the media, especially in the global south, according to CPJ research. In the past 10 years, only three percent of the murders of journalists have resulted in full justice with the masterminds convicted. In the same period, political groups, including IS and other extremist organizations, are the suspected perpetrators in more than 40 percent of murder cases. One of the reasons for the upsurge is simply that killers know they will get away with the crime. With little likelihood of a criminal penalty, religious extremists or drug lords have only a political calculation to make. And for many that calculus is easy–murder a few prominent journalists with headline-grabbing brutality and the rest of the press corps will be intimidated into self-censorship or silence.

This has resulted in so-called violent non-state actors–militias and organized crime, insurgent and terrorist groups–becoming as much a threat to press freedom and the lives and liberty of journalists as repressive regimes.

Governments, at least in theory, are accountable to the people they serve and the international commitments they sign. They can be influenced by international mechanisms like the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights system and advocacy organizations holding them to those obligations. Neither the Islamic State nor the Zetas cartel play by those rules, and they certainly do not receive delegations from independent journalists’ unions or freedom of expression organizations.

Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and its many affiliates have a new twist on the propaganda of the deed with their high-profile attacks and bombings, including the kidnapping or murder of journalists from the deserts of Syria to the office of a satirical magazine in Paris. They use social media and other new communication platforms to promote the attacks as tools for recruitment or intimidation.

Western journalists are learning what reporters in much of the rest of the world have known for years: that they are at risk not only on the battlefield but in their own homes and offices.

Between them, Algeria’s insurgent Armed Islamic Group and Colombia’s various rebel, paramilitary and criminal groups killed scores of journalists in the 1990s in an attempt to control information. But that was pre-web and social media. For most Western audiences, the narrative arc of violent censorship and intimidation begins with the 2001 Al Qaeda-linked kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi. It continues through the 2006 death threats against Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in retaliation for publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad to the 2014 beheadings of U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by IS in Syria and the massacre of eight Charlie Hebdo journalists in France in 2015. The IS beheadings sent a shockwave through the news industry and effectively made IS-held territory off-limits to Western news organization staffers and freelancers alike. This has made much of the world reliant upon local Syrian activists and citizens-turned-journalists for news from inside the self-proclaimed caliphate. But that news comes at a terrible price. At least 23 journalists have been murdered by Islamic State militants from Syria to Iraq Turkey and France. Islamic State leaders want to control all information leaving and entering their proclaimed territory and eliminate anyone that undermines that ambition.

“They have closed down the narrative space, scaring journalists away,” said Charlie Winter, formerly a senior research associate at Georgia State University who studies IS communications strategies. “IS uses the targeting to produce a vacuum,” then tries to fill that vacuum with its own “news.” Islamic State has set up its own Al-Bayan radio station and a sophisticated distribution network for its newsletter, “Al-Naba,” according to Winter and other IS-watchers. In the Iraqi city of Mosul, it has established dozens of news kiosks that distribute flash drives with videos and written content.

“It is working towards an information monopoly… where satellite television doesn’t penetrate, where the internet isn’t accessible,” Winter told CPJ. “But it is not there yet and it is actually quite far away from that.” Its censorship method for controlling information leaving its territory is binary: Work with us or die.

Anyone who pulls out a Smartphone to photograph or record risks arrest and execution, according to journalists and residents who have fled the area. But there is still a hard core of clandestine residents willing to risk their lives to document how their region is being ruled.

“There is a black hole of information coming out with pinpricks of light from activists who are inside,” Winter added. He pointed to such journalist collectives as Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) and Eye on the Homeland.

Ahmed Abd al-Qader is one of those points of light. He helped found Eye on the Homeland, an anonymous collective of reporters and activists formed to deliver news from areas where independent reporting is suppressed. He knows that any reporter caught by IS is marked for death. Islamic State killed his brother and has tried to assassinate him twice.

“A lot of people who try to report on them are executed in public,” he said.

A video was circulated in 2015 of two men “confessing” to working for RBSS and identifying themselves as Faisal Hussain al-Habib and Bashir Abduladhim al-Saado. The video ends with the men being tied to tree trunks and shot. Though RBSS, a hidden citizen journalist group formed after IS took over Raqqa in 2014, denied the men worked for the organization, the message to everyone inside and outside Raqqa was clear.

The public executions followed attempts at coercion to unearth journalists. The father and adopted brother of one RBSS member were held as hostages to coerce the reporters to surrender to IS. They did not and both relatives were killed.

Abd al-Qader personally knows the price for crossing IS. He says IS has tried to kill him twice, even after he fled Syria for the relative safety of neighboring Turkey. “Daesh,” he said, referring to IS by the name often used by its critics, “targeted me in Turkey and killed my brother because we exposed it as a terrorist organization… and the animosity of local people towards them.” He apologized for not being more articulate about the events, as he was still recovering after having been shot in the face in June 2016 and speaks with difficulty. He recalled how IS agents killed his brother and fellow Eye on the Homeland member Ibrahim Abd al-Qader, along with their colleague Fares Hamadi, in an apartment in the southeast Turkey city of Urfa in 2015, shattering any illusion that exile might bring safety.

That IS would extend its deadly enforcement of censorship beyond its immediate territory comes as no surprise to Abdel Aziz al-Hamza, a founding member of RBSS, which received CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award in 2015 for its work in Syria. “Everyone who is known to be working with us moved to Europe… because we can’t consider Turkey safe,” al-Hamza, who lives in exile in Europe, observed.

More than 7,000 miles away in Mexico, a handful of brave regional journalists feel much the same way. Mexico may boast of a vibrant democracy and economy, yet vast parts of the country are plagued by organized crime and corrupt local governments. A federal prosecutor’s office to investigate crimes against freedom of expression and a federal protection mechanism have been largely ineffective, and both mainstream media reporters and bloggers are still being killed with total impunity for crossing the cartels.

In fact, many journalists don’t even know where the cartel will draw its censorship line on any given day. Sometimes they want gang-related violence played down, and sometimes they want it reported, depending upon how they think it reflects on them. “So the vulnerability that journalists experience usually comes from the fact that they sometimes don’t know what they can cover and what they cannot cover,” said Javier Garza, a journalist and former newspaper editor based in northern Mexico. The process of trying to determine what is off-limits has sometimes become absurd: Though circumstances have changed, and in some ways have further deteriorated, as far back as 2010 the daily El Diario threw up its hands and asked the cartels in the city of Ciudad Juárez what it could publish.

“You are the de facto authorities in this city, since our legitimate representatives have been unable to prevent our colleagues from being killed,” the newspaper noted in an editorial that made world headlines.

Things have not improved much since then, except that journalists now sometimes get lists of censored topics to guide them.

“I recently met with a reporter from Tamaulipas, which is one of the states where organized crime exercises the most violence against the media, and they just picked up a list of subjects that are totally off limits to the press,” Garza said. “They can report on the day’s homicide or the day’s shootings but they can’t report, for example, on government corruption or the complicity of government officials with criminal bosses, or they cannot report on businesses that have ties to criminal groups, such as the sale of alcohol or prostitution or contraband, corruption in police forces, businesses that have ties to organized crime that take on government contracts, for example, you know? Those subjects are totally off-limits.” (These restrictions are also covered in Elisabeth Malkin’s chapter on Mexico, elsewhere in this book.)

The result of violent censorship in these regions of Mexico, as in Syria, has been the creation of information vacuums. That’s where bloggers and others thought social media could fill the void. The drug lords had other ideas.

First came the two mutilated bodies hung from a bridge in the border town of Nuevo Laredo in September 2011. According to media reports, the victims had posted criticism of a cartel on social media. The motives for the killings could not be proven.

But the cartels left no doubt in the next killing of a journalist who had turned to social media in the same city days later.

María Elizabeth Macías Castro’s body was left with a note. Her severed head was posed with headphones near a computer keyboard. The note, which referred to the journalist’s pen name, read: “Ok. Nuevo Laredo Live and social media, I am the Girl from Laredo and I am here because of my reports and yours… ZZZZ.” The “ZZZZ” signature suggests a link to the Zetas drug cartel. The murder was the first of a social media journalist in Mexico documented by CPJ. That and the 2014 disappearance of a critical Facebook blogger in the same state of Tamaulipas again underscored the vulnerability of journalists and would-be journalists without the rule of law, irrespective of publishing platforms.

“That had a huge chilling effect,” Garza said. “One anonymous Twitter guy, I mean, one of the most trusted, told me that they had to lower their profile, in a big way, after that happened, and be more circumspect about what they tweeted.”

To fill the information void created by murder and intimidation, the cartels frequently co-opt and corrupt journalists within mainstream media in the regions they control. In that way, they can plant or kill news stories at will.

“When a drug cartel wants to make a show of words, they want the stories published about who they’re killing, for example, or who they’re kidnapping, or whatever, they can do that,” Garza said. “When they want these to keep quiet, when they don’t want to attract too much attention, then they resort to censorship.”

Journalists based in the relative safety of Mexico City can parachute in and cover parts of the crime and corruption story, but they cannot provide the sustained local coverage gleaned from local knowledge that residents really need.

What are the remedies for murderous censorship in Mexico or any of the dozens of other U.N. member democracies such as the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Brazil, where impunity in the killing of journalists is rampant, let alone in IS-held territory?

Part of the answer lies with local journalists themselves. In Mexico, journalists at risk have started working collectively, never traveling alone to crime scenes, taking counter-surveillance measures and sharing information on threats, journalists say.

Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot), a group founded in 2007 as an initiative to improve journalism standards, has transformed itself into a safety network and now provides training for vulnerable reporters. At the national level, journalists argue that the media needs to pressure the government to provide effective protection for regional journalists (at the very least) by strengthening the office of the federal prosecutor for crimes against free expression, which has so far failed to turn the tide of journalist killings.

Colombia has had a protection mechanism in place since the early 2000s and the number of journalist deaths has decreased. The project has been successful because journalists and civil society have been integral members of the mechanism from the beginning–providing authorities with timely information, but also able to pressure the government for individualized protection measures such as emergency evacuation and bodyguards for vulnerable journalists.

Though there have been recent convictions in the killings of journalists in Colombia, critics of the country’s protection mechanism say that authorities involved in the project need to conduct further investigation into all attacks, and prosecute the perpetrators. The project succeeded because the media and local press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) was able to pressure the government to provide bodyguards and security for vulnerable journalists and push for prosecutions of journalist killers.

On the international level, journalists and activists have put the issue of press censorship through murder on the agenda. In 2013, the U.N. designated November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists and UNESCO has since published a guide to help individual countries establish their own journalist safety mechanisms.

In Garza’s view, impunity is the key issue. “More journalists are getting attacked because people doing the attacks are not getting punished,” he said. “I think, really, that’s the essence of it.”

The effectiveness of such international measures and national journalist safety initiatives remains to be seen. They are certainly not of much immediate help to the Syrian citizen-journalists dodging IS.

But there are ways in which the global press freedom and media development community can help Syrian journalist collectives. These range from financial and legal support for journalists who have fled Syria to providing journalism training and equipment.

Eye on the Homeland’s Abd al-Qader needs news-gathering gear. “We don’t have a lot of cameras that we can give the reporters to get the news,” he says of those inside Syria. “When they lose their cameras, they can’t replace them.” He also needs satellite phones and communications equipment.

And RBSS, which received lots of media interest and some foreign funding as its story emerged back in 2014 and 2015, is running out of money. Al-Hamza has a day job in Berlin that enables him to work for RBSS, which needs editors and translators. Its last source of funding from a U.S. NGO dried up in January 2016 and the organization has been strapped ever since.

Islamic State, with its macabre violence against journalists and extreme information control, may be an outlier in the censorship landscape, and it may not even endure as a political and military force. But the issue of violent censorship remains a daily reality for many news gatherers and opinion writers. Not all countries can replicate the Colombian safety model, which depends on bringing together journalist groups, civil society and the security forces with the common purpose of enforcing the rule of law and ending impunity.

If the killers of Avijit Roy and the other bloggers aimed to shut down speech, they have not fully succeeded–yet. Bangladesh has functioning state institutions, but impunity is still rampant. The successors of Avijit Roy are still largely silent. Those bloggers who have not fled are wary. The police have not caught the masterminds, said Mainul Islam Khan, a journalist and press freedom advocate. And the government response? “Government’s top leaders have urged all to be more careful and conscious in their writing so that their writings do not hit any religious sentiments,” he told CPJ.

Robert Mahoney is deputy executive director of CPJ and writes about press freedom issues. He has worked as a correspondent in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.