Where Is Press Freedom?

Journalists are Killed

Caroline Houck

Evan Gershkovich, a WallStreet Journal reporter and the first American journalist to be arrested in Russia on espionage charges since the Cold War, woke up to his second year in prison on March 29.

 “Russia is ranked 164th out of 180 countries in the last Press Freedom Index,” Cavelier pointed out. “It dropped another nine places last year, in the worst category of the ranking where the press freedom situation is classified as ‘very serious’.”

But it would be short-sighted to think that brazen attacks on the media stop at Russia’s borders.

The most egregious example of what happens when there’s a sense of impunity over attacks on journalists is the Israel-Hamas war.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted in December, 68 journalists were killed in the first 10 weeks of the war–more “than have ever been killed in a single country over an entire year.”

That tally has only grown since.

Gaza was already a difficult place to conduct independent journalism, given Hamas’s harassment, intimidation, and physical abuse of reporters. And war zones are obviously dangerous for all civilians, reporters included.

But Israel has said it cannot guarantee journalists’ safety in Gaza and has denied international reporters access to the territory. Even more concerning: Critics say the Israel Defence Forces also appear to have a pattern of targeting journalists. 

“In at least one case, a journalist was killed while clearly wearing press insignia in a location where no fighting was taking place”, CPJ reported. “In at least two other cases, journalists reported receiving threats from Israeli officials and IDF officers before their family members were killed’’.

This builds on years of broader restrictions and harassment of the media, including 20 killings of journalists by Israeli fire over the last two decades. Israel has opened investigations into many of these deaths, to be sure, but no one has ultimately been held accountable. 

One notable example: In 2022, Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed as she was reporting for Al Jazeera on an IDF raid in the West Bank. Independent media investigations indicated it was a deliberate attack by IDF soldiers. 

Israel says there is a “high possibility” a soldier shot Abu Akleh but there was “no suspicion that a bullet was fired deliberately.” (The US response to the killing of one of its citizens was slow to materialise; only six months after her death did reports break that the US had opened an investigation into her killing).

Yes, wars are dangerous to report from. With one exception, “the countries with the highest number of journalists killed for their work in any given year”–Syria in 2012, Afghanistan in 2018, Ukraine in 2022, and Somalia in 2012–were at war or amid an insurrection, per CPJ data.

But this isn’t exclusive to war zones.

Anywhere there’s a struggle for power or even just a lot of money at stake, the media is at risk–be that from the state, non-state actors (like cartels, terrorist groups, or business interests), or an unholy union of the two.

Nowhere is that clearer than in Latin America and the Caribbean.

*    In Guatemala, for example, Q’eqchi’ Mayan journalist Carlos Choc has been subjected to years of legal intimidation and persecution in response to his reporting on the country’s mining industry.
*    In Haiti, there are questions over whether a powerful prosecutor covered up–or even ordered–the murder of a popular radio journalist.
*    In Ecuador, where gangs have been fighting over a newly lucrative narco industry and defying the government with increasing impunity, letter bombs were delivered last year to at least five TV and radio journalists. (Thankfully, no serious injuries were reported).
*    In Mexico, right before Abu Akleh’s killing, three journalists were killed in the span of three days. I’m highlighting it as a stark example of the dangers that reporters, especially those who cover politics or organized crime, face in Mexico–the most dangerous country for media workers for three years running before the outbreak of the Ukraine war.
*    In Brazil, British journalist Dom Phillips was murdered alongside a Brazilian activist while reporting for a book on the destruction of the Amazon. It is part of what the Guardian described as “the increasingly violent atmosphere that has gripped Brazil since the 2018 election of a president who has overseen what activists call a historic assault on Indigenous rights and the environment”.

This profession has never been safe. But until a decade ago or so, there was at least a sense that journalists had a recognized role in reporting from even the world’s worst conflicts–and that role afforded them some protection.

The last couple of years have felt particularly grim, and the outbreak of two wars by two governments, both known to operate with impunity toward reporters, is an obvious turn for the worse.

 [Source: VOX]

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Vol 56, No. 42, Apr 14 - 20, 2024