There is no greater threat to free societies than the murder of journalists. If journalists are not free to report, others eventually go blind: governments cannot see what’s going on at home or abroad, global institutions stagger, finance and business wither. Freedom of expression is recognized as essential to democracy and prosperity. However, 2005 was the worst recorded year for journalist deaths worldwide.
INSI (The International News Safety Institute) counted 146 journalists and support staff – drivers, translators, fixers and others – who died doing their jobs in 28 countries. One horrific accident, the crash of a plane in Iran taking news teams on a military assignment, claimed 48 lives. But more than 70 of the dead were murdered apparently because of their work.
And the pattern is repeating this year with 31 casualties thus far. As always, the vast majority were local journalists working in their own countries. The circumstances surrounding the killings often were not clear. Many countries failed to hold proper investigations.
But as far as we can tell from reports, those responsible for the murders included criminals – drug lords stand out – corrupt businessmen and politicians. A year ago, INSI launched a global inquiry into the reasons for the escalating death toll and asked me to chair it.
The remit: “To prepare a report on the legal, professional and practical issues related to covering the protection of journalists in dangerous situations. “The report will consider proposals for reinforcing existing levels of protection including the possible need for a new international convention dealing specifically with the safety and protection of journalists including, if required, an emblem to achieve a secure and safe environment for journalists and those who work with them.”
Our conclusions should be published this autumn.Alongside interviews with news media staff experiencing violence, we have researched historical records of journalist deaths going back 15 years.
We held fact-finding sessions in Kuala Lumpur and Doha for journalists from Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and Gulf. London followed with a session for international journalists. We gathered journalists from Latin America in New York and in Europe interviewed journalists from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Our final session is due to be held in Africa in the next few months.
We have also had a seminar with a group of international legal experts on the issue of impunity and the legal protections – or lack of them – for journalists. But the bulk of our report – supporting our argument for action – will come from drilling down into the historical data. We are working with Cardiff University on just how we organise the research into this mountain of evidence collected over many years by supporting organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists, (IFJ) Committee to Protect Journalists, (CPJ) International Press Institute (IPI) and others.
Among the issues so far:Neutrality – The status of detached, impartial observer which so often protected journalists in the midst of conflict has largely gone. In an increasingly polarized world reporters are being caught in a crossfire between opposing interests who believe you’re either “with us or against us.” Many US and Israeli troops believe Iraqi and Palestinian journalists are in league with the insurgents. The gunmen in Iraq see working journalists, local and foreign, as exemplars of the occupation. Impunity – This clearly is a prime factor behind the killing of journalists, and it encourages more of the same.
Murder accounts for more than 70 per cent of journalist deaths around the world and around 90 per cent of the killers get away with it. They beat and torture and kill journalists under a cloak of impunity provided by corrupt political, legal and economic systems. Military-Media – Lack of mutual understanding and effective communication causes casualties in major wars. Journalists and armed forces have made fatal assumptions, unfounded in fact or even practical expectation.
There is widespread ignorance in militaries of what journalists do and why they might be in the way. There is also much ignorance amongst journalists about military capabilities (or lack of them) and imperatives. Safety knowledge – The lack of it – and commitment to safe practice by employers and journalists themselves, is a critical factor. Many journalists have no idea of how to look after themselves effectively amid conflict, malign forces, disorder and natural disaster.
They must shoulder some of the blame for casualties through their own foolhardiness, lack of safety and health precautions, ignorance of the background of a situation, reckless competitive pursuit of fame and glory, ignoring military/security force orders and guidance, refusing to wear safety gear, assuming – despite all the evidence – they are somehow invincible. And many employers take incredible risks with their reporters, whether sending them unprotected into war or the criminal underworld without proper training or equipment or guidance.So what might be done? One idea is a media murder index which could be built into country profiles that would be used as a basis for determining international aid.
Encouragingly, Paul Wolfowitz, the new World Bank president, seems to be quietly breaking precedent by ordering the World Bank to protest when press freedoms are under attack.The Bank rebuked the government of Kenya for a violent raid – admitted to have been planned by government officials – earlier this year on KTN Television and the printing offices of the Standard newspaper and froze $250 million in loans. International conventions should be scrutinised to see if greater protection can be provided for journalists – perhaps a new social contract in return for a commitment to professional editorial standards.Greater media-military understanding is seen as essential, though there is no certainty on how best to achieve this, especially when an army perceives the media or a particular news organisation as hostile. Again, we have been encouraged by the British Ministry of Defence’s response to an INSI initiative.
For the first time it has written provisions for journalist safety into its “Green Book” governing military-media relations in time of war. These include a pledge that British forces will never target journalists. Prompt and open inquiries where and whenever journalists are killed by military forces are a prerequisite.Employers must provide better safety training and support both for reporters and crews going into war and those covering dangerous stories at home. Freelances have to be included.
And above all, journalists themselves can help by being true to high quality, independent reporting. During a lively open panel discussion in New York, Ethan Bronner, deputy Foreign Editor of the New York Times, declared journalists had to make clear to societies that they mattered by raising the level of their work. “We must build up what we do so it is unassailable, so that journalism is seen at its highest,” he said.
“There is no greater threat to free societies than the murder of journalists.”
I disagree with Mr Sambrook. I am a journalist myself and I have felt and experienced what a lack of free press can mean. But let us have a look at who really makes the difference.
I feel that Mr Sambrook is making an essential, very western journalistic, mistake. We – the frontline journalists – tend to think that we are the frontline warriors of free speech and action.
In my experience as a journalist, I feel that there are other groups, organisations and individuals who are much more threatened and who much more represent and fight for free societies than we, the frontline journalists, do.
My area of expertise is Colombia. The journalists there, who risk their lives as frontline reporters every day, have one thing in common. All of them say that what is keeping Colombia free and democratic is priests, shamans, independent helpers and then, after a long pause, journalism.
Mr Sambrook is right to worry about free speech around the world. And yes, the journalists that take immense personal risks in order to make injustice public, make a remarkable contribution to the world. However, like it or not, some religious groups, aid workers or doctors who are risking their own lives, deserve more recognition than frontline journalists who get their names published in important papers or magazines before they go back for a drink in the Frontline Club.
In short, my opinion is that we, the journalists, inform the world. But I find it slightly arrogant to say that “there is no greater threat to free societies than the murder of journalists.” It does injustice to all the people who risk their lives for a better society for little or no payment.