Murdering with Impunity: The Rise in Terror Tactics against News Reporters

By Smyth, Frank | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Murdering with Impunity: The Rise in Terror Tactics against News Reporters


Smyth, Frank, Harvard International Review


More journalists were killed last year than ever before. No doubt the world has become a more dangerous place for journalists, but not necessarily in ways that people might expect. The risks to foreign journalists, especially for (but hardly limited to) Western correspondents, have risen dramatically. Some of us are old enough to recall a time back in the 1980s when raising a white flag and writing TV in masking tape on a vehicle might help keep one safe. But in recent years reporters for outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Al-Arabiya have been attacked in ways which demonstrate that being a journalist may only make one more of a target.

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The untold story, however, is the following: the risks to local journalists, or journalists who report within the borders of their own nation, have never been greater. In fact, the risks that local journalists face have long been severe. The difference is that, now, perhaps more Western-based international observers and groups are taking notice.

Nearly three out of four journalists killed around the world did not step on a landmine, or get shot in crossfire, or even die in a suicide bombing attack. Instead, no less than 72 percent of all 831 journalists killed on the job since 1992, according to data compiled with other figures cited below by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were murdered outright, such as killed by a gunman escaping on the back of a motorcycle, shot or stabbed to death near their home or office, or found dead after having been abducted and tortured.

The pattern of most journalists murdered in reprisal for their work, as opposed to being killed by the hazards of combat reporting, holds true even in war zones. In Somalia, more than half (53 percent) of journalists killed did not die in anything like a firefight or bombing attack; instead, they were individually murdered. Similarly, in Afghanistan, outright homicides account for 59 percent of journalists killed. In Iraq, which by any measure has been the most dangerous nation for journalists on record, 63 percent of journalists killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 were murdered.

Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi journalist and contract correspondent in Iraq for Al-Arabiya, a television network based in the United Arab Emirates and partly owned by the Saudi broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center. Bahjat had previously reported from Iraq for Al-Jazeera, the satellite television network based in Qatar and partly financed by the nation's Emir-led government. In 2006, Bahjat and her TV crew were reporting at the site of the Shi'ite Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in Samarra immediately after it had been bombed. A surviving crew member said that armed men driving a white car attacked the crew and demanded to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent. Her remains and those of two crew members were found the following day. Bahjat's corpse in particular, according to a mutual friend interviewed by this author, bore unmistakable signs of torture.

The killing of local journalists is most common. Nearly nine out of ten journalists killed on the job, or 87 percent, were murdered or otherwise killed within their own nation. Many people have heard of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who, after her repeated exposes on human rights abuses in the Russian province of Chechnya, was shot to death in October 2006 in the elevator of her apartment building.

But how many people beyond the northern Mexican town of Saltillo have heard of Valentin Valdes Espinosa, a young general assignment reporter for Zocolo de Saltillo, whose tortured corpse was found in January 2010 after he reported the arrest of an alleged local drug lord? Or how many people outside of the Sindhi-speaking area of Pakistan have heard of Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, a middle-aged reporter for the Daily Sindhu Hyderabad, who was abducted, tortured and left for dead in May 2010 after reporting on an arranged, tribal marriage involving a 12-year-old girl? …

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