Reporters targeted in record numbers and brutal ways

Reporters targeted in record numbers and brutal ways

How to kill a journalist: behead; gun down; throw, with hands and feet bound, from a seventh-floor window; torture to death; blow up; deny medical care in appalling prison conditions; beat to death; locate through satellite phone signal, and then pound with mortar fire. The list goes on. 

From Somalia to Syria, the Philippines to Mexico, and Iraq to Pakistan, journalists are being targeted for death in record numbers, and in brutal ways. In fact, this year is shaping up to be the most lethal for journalists since the International Press Institute (IPI) began keeping count 15 years ago.

In the first quarter of 2012, 29 journalists were killed because of their work. Last year was the second-worst on record, with 102 journalists killed. And 2009 was the grimmest ever, with 110 deaths – 32 of them in a single election convoy massacre in the Philippines in which another 26 civilians were slain.

Ironically, and maybe tellingly, the most dangerous country in the world for journalists so far this year has been Syria – where a largely-peaceful ‘Arab Spring’ uprising has morphed into a violent conflict, at the heart of which remains a demand by citizens that their fundamental human rights be respected. Where tyrants feel threatened, they lash out. In their line of fire: all too often, ordinary citizens and journalists. In the first quarter of 2012 a total of 11 media workers, both foreign and local, were killed in Syria, most if not all eliminated, according to reports, on the orders of the regime.

Across the Arab world, over the past year and a half or so, courageous journalists have died documenting atrocities committed by fallen and flailing dictators. From Libya, through Egypt, to Syria, they have played a vital role in ensuring that despite brutal regime attempts to block the flow of information. It got out anyway, invigorating protestors, bringing down despots.

It is deeply disturbing that in a year and a half marked by the once-unimaginable – the overthrow of brutal Arab regimes through people (and media) power, journalists are dying on-the-job in record numbers. This is due only tangentially to the violent backlash from thugs on the way out.

It has more to do with the failure of states around the world to live up to the obligations laid out in the treaties they have signed, the conventions they have endorsed, and the constitutions they have drafted, all enshrining freedom of expression and the media as a fundamental inalienable right.

It has more to do with the inability of intergovernmental bodies, from the United Nations and its various agencies, to the European Commission and Council of Europe, to the Organisation of American States and the Arab League, to push for compliance and ensure that failure to live up to free media obligations has consequences.

And it has more to do with the incompatibility between remarks made by diplomats in public forums, and at inter-governmental meetings, and facts on the ground, which speak for themselves - in the language of journalists’ blood.

Even in countries in which the media is free, journalists are murdered by contract killers and crooked cops, often because they are investigating crime, especially allegations of corruption. Nowhere is the toll taken on journalists covering organized crime more apparent than in Mexico, where ruthless drug traffickers killed 10 journalists in 2011 – making Mexico the most dangerous country for the media that year.

In virtually every case involving the slaying of a journalist, in countries both free and unfree, the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Sometimes a triggerman is hauled in, and even, on occasions, convicted. But the masterminds? Nowhere to be found. A message is thus sent: Kill a journalist, and nothing will happen. Silence a voice, and you won’t be punished. Murder the messenger, and the system will look the other way. It’s even worse, of course, when those doing the killing are members of government security forces, or their henchmen. 

This is why IPI is seeking ways to strengthen UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) mechanisms for the protection of journalists, in partnership with the Austrian Foreign Ministry – which has made journalist safety a focus of its tenure on the Council.

At a high-level experts’ meeting in Vienna in November 2011, co-organized by the Austrian Foreign Ministry and IPI, and attended by leading NGO, government and IGO representatives, participants noted the following: 

1) While international standards and treaties on the protection of journalists are fairly comprehensive, there are grave shortcomings in their implementation at the national level. So, the focus needs to be on monitoring implementation and compliance.

2) While journalists can seek, themselves, to minimize risks, the primary responsibility in the protection of journalists and the combating of impunity rests with state institutions.

Austria is due to table a resolution on journalists’ safety at the UNHRC by the end of the year.

Let’s take it a step further: Rather than simply “encouraging” and “sensitizing” member states when it comes to press freedom – as some inter-governmental institution action plans do - let’s set up a team of independent international investigators who would work with government agencies to investigate attacks against journalists and report on their findings. Let’s monitor steps taken – or not - by governments to bring the perpetrators of attacks against journalists to justice. Let’s collect information about progress – or the absence thereof - in the prosecution of the killers of journalists. And then let’s hold those states that shun their responsibilities and obligations to account – in the UN and within other respected international forums.
It’s time to send a firm signal that verbal commitments, a signature on a treaty or convention here or there, a somber condemnation of yet another journalist killing, aren’t fooling anyone anymore.