October 27, 2006

How to Protect Journalists

The best way for journalists to prevent organized killings of their own is with an organized response.

Joshua Gardner

The recent murder of the Russian journalist and human rights advocate Anna Politkovskaya effectively silenced an outspoken critic of the Russian campaign in Chechnya. It also coincided, as the Associated Press pointed out, with the shooting of two German reporters in northern Afghanistan and the opening in Bayeux, France, of a memorial to journalists killed while doing their jobs. There is no better time to think about the murder of journalists, especially when carried out by the powerful for strategic reasons, and to wonder why the journalism industry doesn't do more to stop it.

Anna Politkovskaya
Courtesy US Government Photo Collection
Anna Politkovskaya, 1958-2006.
It is not certain that the murder of Politkovskaya, who wrote for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta and had also published a book on the war in Chechnya, was the result of her work exposing Russian corruption and brutality, although it is widely suspected. Whether or not she died for her work, other journalists have—some 2,000 since World War II, according to the AP—and more surely will. Some of these can be chalked up to occupational hazards: Journalists travel to the most dangerous places they can find and then hang around, looking for ways to get closer to the action. Readers of The Bang Bang Club or anything by Ryszard Kapuściński (Wikipedia) will understand that close calls, or worse, are part of the bargain. This, presumably, is what happened to Karen Fischer and Christian Struwe, the German freelancers killed in Afghanistan.

Something more sinister happens when people in power, or their agents or sympathizers, kill journalists in order to silence criticism or prevent information from coming to light. This transcends the inherent danger of a career in reportage and becomes a strategic decision that quiets opposition, destroys evidence, and keeps awful people in power and terrible deeds hidden. Russia has become a particularly dangerous place for journalists. The government there has also taken very open steps to reduce the independence of the press by buying up media outlets critical of the government. “This killing is a sign not to raise certain subjects,” said Alexei Venediktov, chief editor of Ekho Moskvy Radio, in the Moscow Times, “not to raise issues of corruption, not to raise Chechnya and not to raise torture in Chechnya.”

What can be done about this? Outrage is appropriate but tends to be short-lived, at least when the victim is not a friend or family member. I would like to submit to the international press that an organized crime deserves an organized response. “Organized” isn't a word that squares with the image of competitive reporters. But like the workers in a union song, reporters are individually vulnerable but collectively powerful. Furthermore, the actions that could head off future killings of their own are precisely those actions that journalists do best—digging up uncomfortable facts and plastering them across every medium available.

Each future killing of a journalist, when there is any suspicion that it may have been a deliberate attempt to thwart an investigation or silence a critic, should be met with a coordinated, world-wide, well-resourced, intensely publicized investigation that does not conclude, nor leave the front pages, until something like the truth has come out. Like most other decisions, the decision to kill a journalist must involve a calculation of risk and reward. I believe that a more deliberate response from the press, in the form of a predictably well-funded and determined investigation, could alter this calculation.

In a way, this approach requires a kind of manipulation—most publications are capitalist ventures, and three months of coverage of a dead journalist in Russia is not the best way to bring in advertising. This would probably take some convincing at first, but could eventually become standard practice. It might require an organization dedicated to press freedom, such as Reporters Without Borders or the Committee to Protect Journalists, to lobby major publications and news services. These organizations are already doing a lot of good. In response to the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, Reporters Without Borders has demanded an independent international investigation and organized a rally outside the Russian embassy in Paris. But NGOs are easy to ignore, and investigations by international bodies (such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or Council of Europe, which Reporters without Borders suggested) generally require approval from the government in whose territory the crime occurred. The real power of the press, and the real threat to murderous politicians, lies in thorough, independent, long-term investigations by major news agencies. So far, I don’t think they are doing their part.

Until such a concerted effort becomes a routine reaction to murders, some journalists will remain safer to kill than others. The Reporters Without Borders website posts a list of imprisoned journalists, and the names are more likely to sound like Dawit Kedebe or Gao Qinrong than like anything on the masthead of a celebrated New York newsweekly. Getting rid of an inquisitive young freelancer for a little paper in Zimbabwe is less dangerous than knocking off a CNN bureau chief, because few people outside Zimbabwe will hear about it, and fewer will care. The press and public's short attention spans are the ally of dictators, and the message that goes around after a scandal is, “Don’t worry, it will blow over.” But major papers should treat the murder of a journalist anywhere as if it were one of their own—by descending en masse, asking a lot of uncomfortable questions, and not leaving for a long time. The message to unscrupulous leaders everywhere should be, “You didn’t like one of us poking around in your business? How do you like 50 of us?” Admittedly, public knowledge of abuses is no guarantee that anyone will do anything about them (e.g., Darfur), but it can lead to dramatic action (e.g., Watergate), and it is always a necessary first step.

Though advertisers may not cheer, a strong reaction to press killings makes economic sense in other ways. A world in which journalists are in constant danger is a hard world in which to recruit new journalists. Those who remain in the field will deliver safer, less-informative news, and readers will turn elsewhere.

Reporters do incalculable good in terms of protecting human rights and exposing corruption, abuse, and plain stupidity. Making them harder to kill could enable them to probe deeper, speak louder, and stick around longer.

—Joshua Gardner works for the US State Department. The views expressed are the author's own views and not necessarily those of the US Department of State or the US Government.

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