Murdering with Impunity

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Pressing Change

Frank Smyth is the Washington representative and Journalist Security Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He serves as board member of the International News Safety Institute and was a former investigator for Human Rights Watch.

Murdering with Impunity: The Rise in Terror Tactics Against News Reporters More journalists were killed last year than ever before. No doubt the world has become a more dangerous place for journalists, but not necessarily in ways that people might expect. The risks to foreign journalists, especially for (but hardly limited to) Western correspondents, have risen dramatically. Some of us are old enough to recall a time back in the 1980s when raising a white flag and writing TV in masking tape on a vehicle might help keep one safe. But in recent years reporters for outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Al-Arabiya have been attacked in ways which demonstrate that being a journalist may only make one more of a target.

The untold story, however, is the following: the risks to local journalists, or journalists who report within the borders of their own nation, have never been greater. In fact, the risks that local journalists face have long been severe. The difference is that, now, perhaps more Western-based international observers and groups are taking notice.

Nearly three out of four journalists killed around the world did not step on a landmine, or get shot in crossfire, or even die in a suicide bombing attack. Instead, no less than 72 percent of all 831 journalists killed on the job since 1992, according to data compiled with other figures cited below by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were murdered outright, such as killed by a gunman escaping on the back of a motorcycle, shot or stabbed to death near their home or office, or found dead after having been abducted and tortured.

The pattern of most journalists murdered in reprisal for their work, as opposed to being killed by the hazards of combat reporting, holds true even in war zones. In Somalia, more than half (53 percent) of journalists killed did not die in anything like a firefight or bombing attack; instead, they were individually murdered. Similarly, in Afghanistan, outright homicides account for 59 percent of journalists killed. In Iraq, which by any measure has been the most dangerous nation for journalists on record, 63 percent of journalists killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 were murdered.

Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi journalist and contract correspondent in Iraq for Al-Arabiya, a television network based in the United Arab Emirates and partly owned by the Saudi broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center. Bahjat had previously reported from Iraq for Al-Jazeera, the satellite television network based in Qatar and partly financed by the nation’s Emir-led government. In 2006, Bahjat and her TV crew were reporting at the site of the Shi’ite Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in Samarra immediately after it had been bombed. A surviving crew member said that armed men driving a white car attacked the crew and demanded to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent. Her remains and those of two crew members were found the following day. Bahjat’s corpse in particular, according to a mutual friend interviewed by this author, bore unmistakable signs of torture.

The killing of local journalists is most common. Nearly nine out of ten journalists killed on the job, or 87 percent, were murdered or otherwise killed within their own nation. Many people have heard of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who, after her repeated exposés on human rights abuses in the Russian province of Chechnya, was shot to death in October 2006 in the elevator of her apartment building.

But how many people beyond the northern Mexican town of Saltillo have heard of Valentín Valdés Espinosa, a young general assignment reporter for Zócolo de Saltillo, whose tortured corpse was found in January 2010 after he reported the arrest of an alleged local drug lord? Or how many people outside of the Sindhi-speaking area of Pakistan have heard of Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, a middle-aged reporter for the Daily Sindhu Hyderabad, who was abducted, tortured and left for dead in May 2010 after reporting on an arranged, tribal marriage involving a 12-year-old girl? Or how many people outside of Indonesia have heard of Ridwan Salamun, a young correspondent and cameraman for Sun TV, who was stabbed to death in August 2010 while filming violent clashes between two villages?

The evidence in 2009 continues to bolster the same point. CPJ recorded a record 72 journalist deaths last year. The unprecedented toll stemmed largely from the November massacre of 30 journalists out of 57 people killed in one incident during election unrest in the Philippines’s Maguindano province. Keep in mind that CPJ figures are by and large consistent with those provided by other global monitors, including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, except for two possible cases. When it comes to journalist murders, CPJ only includes those cases where researchers have investigated the motive to determine that a journalist was murdered in retaliation for his or her work, as opposed to, say, a business arrangement gone bad, a land dispute, or even a love triangle. In 2009, for example, no fewer than 24 journalists were murdered that year whom CPJ excluded from the record total of 72 journalists killed because a motive in each of these outstanding cases has yet to be determined. Each year, on average, CPJ records dozens of outstanding cases with motives under investigation. CPJ’s annual figure of journalists killed worldwide also excludes murders of media workers such as drivers and translators, which in 2009, for example, numbered three.

The resulting figures still stand up under scrutiny, and they are staggering. At least 599 journalists have been murdered since 1992, according to CPJ statistics. To put it another way, a journalist is murdered somewhere around the world at least once every 11 days. Most of them were not even investigative journalists, but simply beat reporters trying to get the story. More than nine out of ten of the murdered journalists, or 93 percent, were local newsmen and women.

Unsolved Crimes

There is another trend that is even more disturbing. When it comes to journalists, the killers get away with the murders in nearly nine out of ten cases. In no less than 89 percent of journalist murders worldwide, there has been little or no prosecution whatsoever. Moreover, only in four percent of journalist murder cases has full prosecution occurred, which in most cases means that both the assassins and the masterminds who ordered or hired them, have been brought to justice.

In 2005, a judge in Nicaragua found a local politician guilty of the murder of journalist Maria José Bravo, a correspondent for the Managua daily La Prensa. Bravo had been killed in the previous year upon leaving a voting booth during claims of election irregularities. In 2004, a military court in the Ivory Coast found a police officer guilty of the murder of journalist Jean Hélène, a French correspondent with Radio France Internationale, who was shot in the head outside the national police headquarters while waiting to interview an opposition activist. But such convictions remain rare, especially when they involve local correspondents.