Killing journalists does not kill the truth

Updated - February 09, 2016 05:18 pm IST

Published - February 08, 2016 01:12 am IST

Last week, the international community focussed on the state of safety of journalists. On Wednesday (February 3, 2016), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) released its 25th report on journalists and media staff killed since 1990. The report lists the killing of 2,297 media professionals due to violence in journalism. This number includes 112 journalists who were killed in 2015 alone. The IFJ report also highlights the fact that from double digits at the start of these publications, the figures reached three digits in 11 years, peaking to 155 killings of journalists and media staff in 2006, the deadliest year on record, and the growing impunity with which the lives of journalists are extinguished by different illiberal forces professing myriad ideological views.

Two days after the release of the report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation organised a day-long international conference of “news organisations standing up for the safety of media professionals”. It aimed at providing news organisations a platform to discuss the existing and new measures to strengthen journalists’ safety worldwide and engage with member states on these issues. The conference brought together many high-level representatives of news organisations from all regions, including community media and small media outlets together to share good practices on the safety of journalists and highlight the issue of journalist safety more proactively.

The IFJ report pointed out that wars and armed conflicts account for a number of deaths. But these deaths are only a part of the grim numbers. According to IFJ general secretary Anthony Bellanger, there were other reasons, often removed from the war theatre, for targeting journalists, many of whom are victims of organised crime barons and corrupt officials. “It is a recurring finding of our reports that there are many more killed in peacetime situations than in war-stricken countries,” said Mr. Bellanger.

The IFJ report estimates that only one of ten killings is investigated. Mr. Bellanger seeks an active intervention to stop the tide of violence against journalists. He said: “It requires governments to comply with their international obligations by investigating journalists’ killings and bringing those responsible to justice, thus deterring future violence. It depends on the willingness of the United Nations and its agencies, as the custodians of international instruments which enshrine the right to physical integrity of all human beings, to enforce these guarantees for the benefit of journalists and other media personnel.”

Preventing violence against journalists The attack on journalists generates a huge international fury and an optical illusion of a concerted action to put an end to the impunity with which men and women who wield the pen are killed. The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution at its 68th session in 2013, which proclaimed November 2 as the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’ (IDEI). This resolution not only condemned all attacks and violence against journalists but also urged member states to do their utmost to prevent violence against journalists. It called upon states to promote a safe and enabling environment for journalists to perform their work independently and without undue interference.

The first lesson we learn as journalists is that no story is worth dying for, and most journalists do take necessary precautionary measures to protect themselves. But it is the stark political reality that emboldens the perpetrators. Some of the misplaced questions from the authorities are: why was the reporter present in a conflict area? Why do you want to cover violence? The acts of violence are by non-state players and so why should the state be held responsible for the killing? It is important to understand that numbers and statistics are inadequate to explain the sense of loss to a society by these wanton acts of violence designed to silence voices. The killing of journalists creates an atmosphere of fear, intimidation and an eerie silence.

My first international assignment was to cover Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Indo-Sri Lankan accord in 1987. It was the time when the island-nation was at war both in the north (between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Indian Peace Keeping Force) and in the south (between the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the Sri Lankan Army). I was fortunate to know Richard de Zoysa, an editor with the Inter Press Service, who guided me through the developments in the south, and Kumaraguru Kugamoorthy, an employee of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, who provided insights into the developments in the north.

I was unfortunate that I also had to record their ‘disappearances’. On February 18, 1990, de Zoysa, 32, was abducted and killed and his body was found near Lunawa beach near Colombo. On September 20, 1990, Kugamoorthy was waylaid and abducted while he was returning from work. That was the last heard of him. In his 1989 poem, de Zoysa captured the role of a journalist using an elegant metaphor:

“I am the eye of the camera

Can only reflect, never reject

Never deflect.

I am the eye of the Camera

Silent recorder of life and death

Eye that can only reflect

Never conjure up images

Probe the reality

Never reject.”

Neither the killer of the journalist nor the prosecution agencies seems to read poems.

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