With journalists being targeted for death in record numbers, it's beyond time to merely "sensitize" national governments to the idea of press freedom; it's time to hold them accountable, writes Alison Bethel McKenzie, executive director of the International Press Institute.
HOW to kill a journalist: behead; gun down; throw, with hands and feet bound, from a seventh-floor window; torture to death; blow up; deny medical care in appalling prison conditions; beat to death; locate through satellite phone signal, and then pound with mortar fire. The list goes on.
From Somalia to Pakistan, journalists are being targeted for death in record numbers, and in brutal ways. In fact, this year is shaping up to be the most lethal for journalists since the International Press Institute (IPI) began keeping count 15 years ago.
In the first quarter of 2012, 29 journalists were killed because of their work.
Ironically, and maybe tellingly, the most dangerous country in the world for journalists so far this year has been Syria — where a largely peaceful “Arab Spring” uprising has morphed into a violent conflict, at the heart of which remains a demand by citizens that their fundamental human rights be respected.
Where tyrants feel threatened, they lash out. In their line of fire: all too often, ordinary citizens and journalists. In the first quarter of 2012, a total of 11 media workers, both foreign and local, were killed in Syria, most if not all eliminated, according to reports, on the orders of the regime.
Across the Arab world, over the past year and a half or so, courageous journalists have died documenting atrocities committed by fallen and flailing dictators. From Libya, through Egypt, to Syria, they have played a vital role in ensuring that despite brutal regime attempts to block the flow of information, it got out anyway, invigorating protesters, bringing down despots.
It is deeply disturbing that in a year and a half marked by the once-unimaginable — the overthrow of brutal Arab regimes through people (and media) power — journalists are dying on the job in record numbers. This is due only tangentially to the violent backlash from thugs on the way out.
It has more to do with the failure of states around the world to live up to the obligations laid out in the treaties they have signed, the conventions they have endorsed, and the constitutions they have drafted.
And it has more to do with the incompatibility between remarks made by diplomats in public forums and facts on the ground, which speak for themselves — in the language of journalists’ blood.
In virtually every case involving the slaying of a journalist, in countries both free and unfree, the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Sometimes a triggerman is hauled in, and even, on occasions, convicted. But the masterminds? Nowhere to be found. A message is thus sent: Kill a journalist, and nothing will happen. Silence a voice, and you won’t be punished. Murder the messenger, and the system will look the other way.
Rather than simply “encouraging” and “sensitizing” member states when it comes to press freedom, as some intergovernmental institution action plans do, let’s set up a team of independent international investigators who would monitor steps taken — or not — by governments to bring the perpetrators of attacks against journalists to justice. Let’s evaluate progress — or the absence thereof — in the prosecution of the killers of journalists. And then let’s hold those states that would shun their responsibilities and obligations to account — in the U.N. and within other respected international forums.
It’s time to send a firm signal that verbal commitments, a signature on a treaty or convention here or there, a somber condemnation of yet another journalist killing, aren’t fooling anyone anymore.
Alison Bethel McKenzie is executive director of the International Press Institute and is based in Vienna, Austria. She has more than 25 years experience in journalism, having served as Washington, D.C., bureau chief of The Detroit News, executive editor of Legal Times and managing editor of the Nassau Guardian in the Bahamas, among other positions.