Don’t kill the messenger
Is journalism becoming more dangerous?
November 14, 2016, 7:00 pm ASTLast Updated: January 6, 2018, 12:12 am
Working as a journalist in Canada has its difficulties. We tussle with public officials, brave riots and extreme weather, miss family functions and struggle to keep our jobs in an expanding technological world. But rarely is a Canadian journalist killed for reporting a story.
We’re slapped into realizing how dangerous this job can be when news of Amanda Lindhout’s kidnapping or James Foley’s murder splash across headlines for doing the same thing we do every single day: reporting a story.
This shakes us. It angers us. And then we remember there was a point during the war in Afghanistan when more reporters had died than Canadian soldiers. Sadly, in some countries, the death of a journalist isn’t unusual.
As the saying goes: the first casualty of war is the truth. But is the second casualty the one who tells it? In 2015 alone, 72 journalists were killed in direct relation to their work. Increasingly, journalists around the world are paying the ultimate price for exercising their right to free expression.
“Journalists no longer occupy the privileged position they once did,” says Courtney Radsch, the Advocacy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “People used to want them to tell their stories.”
The CPJ is an independent, non-profit organization based in New York that evaluates and classifies hundreds of attacks on media workers each year. For the past 25 years, the organization has provided detailed information on obstructions to the free press worldwide.
According to its statistics 1,214 journalists have been killed since 1992 – that’s about one a week. Radsch clarifies this number only includes incidents when the journalist was killed “in direct reprisal for his or her work; in crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment.” The number doesn’t include media aides, such as cameramen, fixers and translators, or journalists whose deaths remain unconfirmed.
“The number of journalists killed and imprisoned is at a historic high,” said Radsch. “When journalists are killed, it sends a very strong and powerful message to all other journalists. And when there is no justice for their deaths, it sends an even stronger message reinforcing censorship.”
Radsch transitioned into free press advocacy after she was fired and kicked out of Dubai for publishing a “risky” article while working as a journalist in 2009.
The article revealed information about a national airline. Although Radsch knew she would be crossing a “red line,” she wrote the story anyway, believing the public had a right to know.
“As an American journalist,” Radsch said, “I think I took a lot of my right to free expression and the ability to publish what I wanted for granted.”
As the number of journalist fatalities continues to rise, press freedom globally has declined to its lowest point since 2002. Political, criminal and terrorist forces all seek to co-opt the media. Only 13 percent of the world’s population currently enjoys a free press. This means fewer than one in seven people live in countries where coverage of political news is diligent, state interference in media affairs is minimal, and the protection of journalists is guaranteed.
“It used to be that journalists had a type of immunity,” says Tom Henheffer, the executive-director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. “Now they’re seen as targets.”
According to Henheffer, this targeting is happening in many countries around the world. Terrorist and rebel groups in Africa and the Middle East kill journalists to demonstrate their power, while organized criminal groups in Central and South American target reporters because reporters are a threat: they “shine a spotlight on their criminal activity when governments fail to do so.”
And fewer and fewer journalists are being sent to cover conflicts abroad. Cost-cutting in Canadian and U.S. news organizations has led to the closure of foreign bureaus; most media outlets don’t have the funds to send journalists into risky situations anymore. Today, the Los Angeles Times has 13 foreign correspondents, down from 24 in 2003. Of the Washington Post’s 16 foreign bureaus, 12 now consist of only one reporter.
When journalists stop reporting from unstable countries, less verifiable truth will come from such places. This can only lead to further destabilization. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Henheffer said.
Raja Salim personally witnessed this destabilization. A Syrian journalist born and bred, she fled her country in 2012 as the civil war gained momentum. After two years of attempting to report from Lebanon, then two more in Turkey, Salim and her sister jumped at an opportunity to move to Canada – the first place they have felt safe in years.
Through Skype calls and emails with contacts back home, Salim continues to report on current events for SMART News Agency, a Syrian-based news organization, from her home in Halifax. “People from our hometown, and all over, gather information,” says Salim. “Then they send it to us to write the articles. We write them, because we are safe.”
One month after Salim arrived in Nova Scotia, a video depicting the murder of two of her colleagues went viral. Salim says she will always be ashamed of leaving her country behind, but it would be “impossible” to report the way she wanted to if she had stayed. “I would be killed.”
According to the CPJ, 88 percent of all journalists’ deaths since 1992 happened while reporters were covering stories in their own countries. Caroline Lees, a British journalist and a researcher for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based in the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, has written several articles on the subject. She says that the gravest of threats face local journalists.
“Correspondents have their foreign passports; they can leave the country after the report is finished,” said Lees. “But local journalists remain in very real danger.”
Lees used to be the South Asia correspondent for the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times, and regularly reported from Afghanistan in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. She said that during her time there, even under Taliban rule, she never felt in danger.
“I was always careful,” said Lees, “but I was rarely afraid. As a journalist I felt like an observer, rather than a participant, in the war. That’s no longer true. Deteriorating security means there are many places too dangerous to visit, and stories too risky to chase.”
Back in New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists has published a Journalist Security Guide that provides detailed advice to local and international journalists of all experience levels. Courtney Radsch of the CPJ says members of her organization frequently speak to journalism schools, and emphasize journalist safety.
It’s important to acknowledge that although the majority of incidents towards journalists happen abroad – in countries that are at war or are known to have a corrupt government and/or lack free expression – cases still happen in countries that support a free press. Just last year, eight journalists were killed in the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris. CPJ records also show that, over the past 25 years, two journalists were killed in retaliation for their work in Canada and seven in the United States.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression also aims to raise awareness about the increasing number of fatalities, and to find new ways to mitigate danger for journalists – at home and abroad. The organization’s main difficulty, Tom Henheffer said, lies in the fact that the definition of a journalist is constantly changing. “The term journalist, blogger, activist… It’s all extremely blurry. Right now there are more ‘journalists’ fighting for freedom than ever before.”
So is journalism more dangerous? Both the CJFE and the CPJ say it’s hard to know for certain. There’s no doubt fatalities are increasing. It’s unclear, though, whether that’s because there are more journalists, or because more places are dangerous for journalists.
“But there’s no doubt,” said Henheffer, “that right now is an incredibly dangerous time to be a journalist.”
Kayla Hounsell, a reporter for CTV Atlantic, spent a month working with Journalists for Human Rights in South Sudan last year. The new country is classified as one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist, ranking 140th on the World Press Freedom Index for 2016. Hounsell said she was inspired by the risks the journalists she met were taking in order to hold governments accountable and demand change.
“It will always be worth it for people to take some level of risk,” said Hounsell. “But every risk should be calculated. No story is worth a person’s life.”
It’s a sad fact that, in too many situations, a journalist has to decide if a story is worth risking their life. That so many continue to do so is a testament.
“Journalists are a weird breed,” said Henheffer. “Despite all of the tragedies, all of the deaths, despite all of the dangers, there are more journalists entering the market every day. They are passionate to fight for the truth.”