When did the murder of journalists become so banal?

When did the murder of journalists become so banal?
Comment: There has been a dangerous cultural shift in attitudes towards the fourth estate, writes Hadani Ditmars.
6 min read
01 Nov, 2018
Journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on October 2 [AFP]
At a Frontline Club panel in London last week called 'Attack on the Fourth Estate: The Killing and Imprisonment of Journalists', I pondered, when did the murder of journalists become so banal?

Timed to herald this Friday's UN-backed International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, the panel included Rebecca Vincent, the UK Bureau Director for Reporters Without borders, and Peter Greste, the Latvian-Australian journalist imprisoned along with his colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and and Baher Mohamed in Egyptian prison for 14 months.

According to UNESCO, over 1,000 journalists have been killed since 2006. Make no mistake, they have not been killed in crossfire, but deliberately targeted for doing their job.

The latest grisly example is the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in his own embassy, but other recent egregious cases include the murder of Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova, reporting on alleged corruption in her country - the third journalist killed in the EU this year.

The memory of Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, who led the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in Malta and was killed a year ago in a car bomb, has now been sullied by ongoing posthumous defamation suits against her by government officials, including the Maltese Minister of Tourism.

To add insult to injury, the two Burmese journalists Wa Lone, 32, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 28, who were set up by police when they were offered inside information into the extrajudicial killings of Rohingya and then arrested by the same police for violating state secrets, have received a sentence that is much longer than that of the killers they exposed.

But when exactly did the murder of journalists become the norm, rather than the exception?

And of course the targeting of Palestinian journalists by Israeli forces continues unabated - the latest victim being freelance BBC journalist Yaser Murtaja who was killed in April by Israeli snipers, while covering the protests in Gaza - to no-one's great alarm.

But when exactly did the murder of journalists become the norm, rather than the exception? And what kind of cultural shift precipitated this normalisation?

According to Greste, whose dual nationality proved a boon as efforts by Latvian diplomats on his behalf helped secure his release - in stark contrast to say, the dual nationality of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi, murdered in Iran's Evin prison - the shift happened after 9/11, when the Taliban murdered four journalists on their way to Kabul.

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Maria Grazia Cutuli was killed along with Spanish citizen Julio Fuentes of El Mundo, and Australian Harry Burton and Afghani Azizullah Haidari, who both worked for Reuters. The group was ambushed about 90 kilometers from the capital on 19 November 2001 as they traveled there from Jalalabad.

While killer Reza Khan was later prosecuted, the real provocation, said Greste, was George W. Bush's statement after the launch of his post-9/11 "anti-terror' campaign, "Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

After that, said Greste, journalists were perceived as "part of the battlespace".

The internet, noted Greste, has made things "murkier" and facilitated both "fake news" and a discrediting of the profession.

In addition, the post-9/11 'with us or against us' mentality was soon compounded by draconian "anti-terror" legislation that left many journalists in western democracies unable to report properly on the activities of their own intelligence services.

Impunity for such crimes is fuelled by growing indifference

We are now at the point, where as Frontline Founder Vaughn Smith noted, "we need a disincentive to murder journalists."

One possible beacon of hope is Forbidden Stories the brainchild of Laurent Richard an award-winning investigative journalist, filmmaker, 2017 Knight-Wallace fellow, and co-author of the book Reporting Is Not a Crime.

Stand Together Against Censorship has created a collaborative journalism network devoted to protecting and publishing the work of journalists who are threatened, jailed, or killed across the world.

Read more: Media watchdogs condemn five-year jail sentence for Egypt photojournalist Shawkan

But the most damning fact in all of this, is that according to UNESCO, in 90 percent of the more than 1,000 cases of journalists killed since 2006, the killers have gone unpunished. Impunity for such crimes is fuelled by growing indifference and a marked cultural shift in attitudes towards the fourth estate - not just in 'police states' but in many western democracies, too. 

When I started out in this profession three decades ago, journalism was still a respectable profession. With the exception of perhaps Israel, where announcing one's day job would elicit stoney faced responses and instant linkage to "the other side", the fourth estate still held some gravitas.

Now, thanks to a confluence of Trump and his army of right wing demagogues, the proliferation of bloggers and the creeping corporatisation of the media that blurs reporting with PR, journalism has become not only the Rodney Dangerfield of professions, but also one of the more dangerous ones. And sadly, it pays even less than espionage, (or so I'm told).

The targeting of Palestinian journalists by Israeli forces continues unabated

But as the pillar of democratic society still fails to get any respect, one wonders what the future holds? Will we go back to a Medici-style system of patronage, or have we already?

Is indifference a form of collusion?

Thank goodness there is still poetry to fall back on, when the speakers of truth to power have become so vilified and endangered - perhaps mostly because the stakes are so high - and there is so much more corruption to be exposed.

But as Canadian poet Mary de Michele wrote in Afterword: Trading in on the American Dream,

Listen, whatever I write here, what you read, is safe. It's between us. In North America, writers don't disappear. They are not tortured. They are ignored. People are not arrested. They are illiterate.

"Entertainment has become an industry, hybrid of boardroom and circus. Displacement is vision. How can we be touched?

Or as the prophet/bard Leonard Cohen once wrote in his song, A Singer Must Die,

Now the courtroom is quiet, but who will confess

Is it true you betrayed us? The answer is "yes"

Then read me the list of the crimes that are mine

I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline

And all the ladies go moist, and the judge has no choice

A singer must die for the lie in his voice

And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty

You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty

Your vision is right, my vision is wrong

I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song

…. I am so afraid that I listen to you

Your sun glassed protectors they do that to you

It's their ways to detain, their ways to disgrace

Their knee in your balls and their fist in your face

Yes and long live the state by whoever it's made

Sir, I didn't see nothing, I was just getting home late."

Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No Fly Zone, and has been writing from and about the MENA since 1992. Her next book, Between Two Rivers, is a travelogue of ancient sites and modern culture in Iraq. www.hadaniditmars.com

Follow her on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.