The past few years have been particularly challenging for journalists, who saw a dramatic increase in kidnappings, videos and decapitations, according to a report from the Geneva-based group Reporters Without Borders (RWB). Syria, once again, is the most dangerous country for journalists followed by the Palestinian territories (particularly Gaza), Libya, Iraq and Ukraine.
Women were not exempt from the atrocities. The number of female journalists murdered doubled in the last year with unfortunate examples documented in Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Mexico, to just name a few.
“The acts of intimidation cannot be underestimated,” Malena Aznarez, president of RWB in Spain, told me in a telephone interview. In just 2014, 66 journalists were murdered, 119 were kidnapped, 178 were jailed and 1,846 were beaten or threatened worldwide, and that is just what is reported.
“The assassinations are deliberately barbarous to intimidate journalists and their families. As a result, news organizations have pulled back from sending journalists to cover stories in a growing number of countries where there is, literally, a price on their heads.” As a result, Aznarez says, too many important stories go untold.
Journalists in our own hemisphere also face danger. Persecution and detention of reporters are common in Cuba and Venezuela, for example. Add to that Mexico and Colombia, both notorious for the risks posed to those who report or do news investigations about organized crime, narco-trafficking and corruption. Many print, radio and television journalists perished for doing a great job. Now, journalists in Europe are facing a similar risk with one big difference: Terrorists use the shooting or beheading of journalists as weapons of ideological propaganda.
The French were caught off guard with the terrorist attack against the weekly newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, in the heart of Paris that left 12 dead. The journalists who worked for this funny, if not irreverent, newspaper were aware of the risks they took publishing caricatures that made light of the Prophet Mohammed. But it is what they did — Charlie Hebdo mocks all political leaders and religions; it is a satirical journal.
The extent of the massacre is shocking, and as occurs after all terrorist attacks, people search for simple answers to difficult questions. French President François Hollande summed it up well in a televised address to a stunned country.
“We were being threatened because we are a country of freedom,” he said. “And because we are a country of freedom, we will fight against these threats and we will punish the aggressors.” Referring to the slain journalists, Hollande called them heroes who would be recognized in a day of national mourning.
The French were not the only ones to pay tribute to the journalists who, in the words of now-late editor-in-chief of Charlie Hebdo, Stephane “Charb” Charbonniere, preferred to “die standing rather than live kneeling.” Around the world, thousands recognized the valor of journalists and the importance of freedom of expression as the cornerstone of all other freedoms. Unfortunately, it can easily be forgotten; this has occurred in Europe before.
In 1996, film director and writer Theo Van Gogh was shot eight times and beheaded on a street in Amsterdam for the “crime” of making short film critical of Islam called Submission: Part 1, which criticized the treatment of women in Islam by a Muslim extremist who believed, as do other extremists, that Islam requires submission by all. How to win against that?
The war on terror is far from over; there are very real enemies of freedom. Governments and intelligence organizations can continue to work together to organize a strong military response to terrorism but civil societies also have a role to play. Freedom of expression and serious journalism need greater support; too many journalists feel the chill of indifference and intimidation for reporting on stories that make some of the smug among us uncomfortable.
Today, there are Facebook postings and signs that read “We are all Charlie Hebdo,” but these are just words without action. Freedom of the press and of speech is the greatest weapon against tyranny. There is no freedom without freedom of the press. To live otherwise is to live on our knees.