Journalists defy dangers because they understand that their role is a necessary check on the ambition and vanity of the rich and powerful. Protecting reporters has never been so necessary
Ten journalists were killed in two attacks in Afghanistan on Monday along with 26 other people who seem to have been collateral damage. All of these deaths were tragedies for everyone who loved the victims. But attacks on journalists, like attacks on doctors or judges, are not just attacks on individuals and their families: they aim to tear the connective tissue of society. Not all journalists are singled out for killing, of course. Those who never attack the powerful or do not put themselves in harm’s way are unlikely to be victims.
Yet neither is it necessary to display the extraordinary determination of the Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bomb near her home last year, in order to be at risk. Often it is enough to be doing the unglamorous work of reporting what happens in plain sight, to ensure that no one turns away from what should be in front of their noses. There are times and places when the simple truth is in itself a provocation to thugs and criminals. In Afghanistan, as in Pakistan, in Mexico, and above all in Syria, journalists are killed simply for recording the atrocities around them.
Even if most journalists are killed by gangsters and mafiosi, these are not the only threats. In surprisingly few countries can they rely on the impartial protection of an effective state. Last year there were 42 outstanding unsolved killings of journalists in the Philippines, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; in Mexico and Pakistan there were 21 each; in Somalia, after a long civil war, there are 26 outstanding cases. In some countries like Russia, where 38 journalists have been murdered since 1992 and many of those cases remain unsolved, it is extremely difficult to disentangle the gangsters from the government. Just as with hacking gangs in cyberspace, the use of tame criminals can supply a government with a faint shimmer of deniability, however implausible.
Often the state seems not so much inefficient as actively malignant. Indian reporters say they are increasingly facing intimidation aimed at stopping them from running stories critical of Narendra Modi, the prime minister. In March three Indian journalists were run over and killed over 48 hours in what were claimed to be deliberate attacks after exposing graft. At the moment, it is Turkey and Myanmar that contend for the unenviable title of the most energetic persecutors of journalists. In Turkey the Erdogan government has sentenced 13 journalists and executives from one of the country’s most respected newspapers to long jail terms for reporting on Kurdish affairs. This is in a country where 25 journalists have been killed since 1992. Just as shocking is the situation in Myanmar, where two Reuters journalists face long jail terms when they should be in line for international prizes for their scrupulous account of a massacre of civilians in Rakhine state. If any further proof were necessary of the government’s complicity in the campaign against the Rohingya, the persecution of these journalists would supply it.
And although the rich world takes notice of those who bring the news out to us, the vast majority are people serving their own communities, working for little glamour and less money, with a display of routine everyday heroism that puts more pampered colleagues to shame. The defence of journalistic freedom, and of journalists’ lives, is not some western affectation. It is something that all societies need if they are to be honest with themselves. It is a necessary check on the ambition and even the vanity of the powerful, and the dangers that some brave journalists defy prove just how much we need it – and them.