Killing the Messenger
Dozens of journalists are murdered every year to silence reports of human rights abuses, criminal enterprise and government corruption
By Joe Piasecki 08/09/2007
What would you be willing to die for?
Anna Politskovskaya was slain simply for telling the truth.
In October, the special correspondent for the independent Moscow twice-weekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) was gunned down execution-style in her Moscow apartment days before she was to publish an investigative report — complete with photographic evidence — linking torture of civilians in Chechnya with soldiers loyal to the acting president of that war-torn land.
The search for her assassins took center stage in June during the Los Angeles Press Club's Southern California Journalism Awards ceremony at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. During the ceremony, Politskovskaya was posthumously honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, named for the Wall Street Journal reporter who in 2002 was murdered in Pakistan and presented to her by Pearl's father, Judea.
Novaya Gazeta deputy editor Sergei Sokolov spoke at the gathering. “She was not impervious to the fear of death,” he said of Politiskovskaya with the help of a translator, but, “she felt she had no choice but to tell the truth because nearly every day desperate people came and asked her for help.”
Stories like Politskovskaya's are tragically common — not only in the former Soviet Union but all over the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Here in California just last week, Oakland Post Editor and former Oakland Tribune reporter Chauncey Bailey was reportedly ambushed and gunned down allegedly by an employee of a business whose management and associates Bailey had covered in critical articles. Bailey, according to reports, had been working on another story about the business and its finances; investigators say this played a role in his death.
In the first seven months of this year, 31 journalists including Bailey have been either murdered in direct retaliation for stories they were working on or killed in combat situations, according to CPJ.
This year's grim statistic brings the total number of journalists killed since Jan. 1, 1992 — not counting those who went missing or whose deaths the group could not link with certainty to their profession — to 642.
Of the 636 journalists killed as of June 28 (before the deaths in the line of duty of Bailey and five reporters in Iraq and Pakistan), 72.7 percent were murdered outright, and 17.6 percent died during combat-related situations. A 58.2 percent majority worked in print journalism.
Most often suspected of planning or perpetrating murders of journalists, CPJ reports, are political groups (29 percent), government officials (19.3 percent) and criminal groups (11.5 percent).
Perhaps just as disturbing as the killings themselves, though, is the fact that most perpetrators — a mind-boggling 85.7 percent of those involved in journalist murders — have done so with complete impunity. CPJ believes only 6.7 percent of journalist murder cases have resulted in full justice for the victims and their families.
Among the 15 worst countries in terms of safety for journalists is Mexico, where since 1992 six have been killed in direct retaliation for their work along with 11 others in more mysterious circumstances.
Just a few hours' drive from Pasadena, Tijuana has been the scene of three attacks against journalists associated with Zeta, a crusading weekly newspaper known for fearless investigative coverage of local drug cartels and government corruption.
In the summer of 2004, co-Editor Francisco Javier Ortiz Franco was gunned down as he sat in his car with his two youngest children in what is believed to be an act of retaliation for stories exposing drug trafficking operations. Armed men killed Zeta co-founder Hector Felix Miranda in April 1988, and in 1997 co-founder Jesus Blancomelas was seriously wounded by machine-gun fire during an assassination attempt.
Here at home, this newspaper has not been free from attempts to intimidate its staff.
In 2002, one subject of an investigative report involving crime in an Alhambra neighborhood threatened violence against both this reporter and Weekly Editor Kevin Uhrich, and following that incident a former publisher told staff he had received threatening telephone messages condemning the paper's outspoken coverage of local anti-war activity.
In 2003, following a series of stories about sexual harassment and corruption at an area police agency, all but one lug nut was removed from the front passenger-side wheel of a car owned by Uhrich, resulting in damage to the vehicle that Uhrich and this reporter were riding in. And in 2004 reporter André Coleman received an anonymous threatening phone call in relation to his investigation into the officer-involved shooting of Maurice Clark.
Politskovskaya's murder is the third killing of a staff member of Novaya Gazeta, which was founded with help from former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who donated part of his 1990 Nobel Peace Prize award toward an initial purchase of computers.
In July 2000, an editor died from head wounds suffered two months earlier in an attack following the publication of articles that were critical of a regional official.
In July 2003, then-Deputy Editor Yuri Shchekochikhin died of what government officials have described as a rare allergy, an illness so strange that all records surrounding the facts of his death have been declared state secrets. He had been covering an intricate scheme involving money laundering, weapons trafficking and illegal oil smuggling that implicated members of the prosecutor general's office, according to CPJ.
Most recently in Russia, a former space program colonel working as a military correspondent for another newspaper was killed before he could file a report about a planned Russian sale of fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to Syria and Iran by channeling the weapons through Belarus to conceal their origin.
Nina Ognianova, CPJ's program coordinator for Europe and Central Asia, testified last Tuesday before the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe that lack of interest on the part of many governments when it comes to probing journalist deaths should be addressed emphatically by American foreign policy.
“These issues are often eclipsed by strategic energy of military interests, so human rights violations like murders of journalists take a back seat. In doing so, democratic governments like the United States are sending a message that this is acceptable and will be tolerated in their continuing partnerships with authoritarian governments,” Ognianova told the Weekly.
Also known as the Helsinki Commission, the agency was established to monitor compliance with the Cold War-era Helsinki Accords, which demand the recognition and protection of human rights. It is led by nine members of the US House of Representatives, including El Monte Democrat Hilda Solis and nine senators — among them Sen. John Kerry and presidential candidates Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY).
“Freedom of the press is the foundation of democracy that keeps governments accountable in challenging times. I am particularly concerned about developments in Russia, where threats to journalists are real and dangerous,” said Solis in a statement emailed Monday to the Weekly. “The high murder rate of journalists in Russia is simply unacceptable. We must continue to strongly urge Russia to respect basic freedoms such as freedom of the press and end any intimidation of journalists, especially threats of violence.”
However, there is no news yet on progress with investigations into Politskovskaya's death, said documentary filmmaker and UCLA journalism Professor Marina Goldovskaya. Goldovskaya was one of Politskovskaya's journalism instructors at Moscow University, and the two maintained a friendship that prompted Goldovskaya to begin filming a documentary about her life and death.
“She received threats all the time from all kinds of crooks and people who she criticized. They were afraid of her. They wanted her to stop talking. The film is about her as a brave woman … and how the country and the people miss her because they lost the conscience of the nation,” said Goldovskaya, who was reached via telephone while filming in Moscow.
But what does that mean for us?
“I think that Americans tend to be more involved and interested in their personal life, which is absolutely understandable, but few people really care about the world — which is going to hell little by little,” said Goldovskaya. “It's not only a Russian problem. It's also an American problem, a global problem.”
As CPJ sees it, “An attack against any journalist in a country like Russia is an attack on the press corps of the United States,” said Ognianova.
“With every journalist slain, a story is being buried along with them,” she said. “After 9/11, we all saw how connected we are. So we should care about what happens next door — especially to the messengers, because they are the eyes and ears of society.”