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Journalism is Not a Crime

A week ago, scores of journalists, media leaders, and the heads of some human rights organizations took to the streets of London, covering their mouths in silent protest against the suppression of free speech around the world. The protest marked 100 days since the imprisonment of three Al Jazeera journalists in Egypt on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

Protesters – myself included – stood shoulder to shoulder outside the headquarters of the BBC, holding blue and yellow placards that said “Journalism is not a Crime.”

What is a crime – and a crime that all too often goes unpunished – are deliberate, targeted attacks on journalists. Since 2007, 547 journalists have been killed worldwide. In just one in 10 of those cases has the perpetrator been tried and justice served. Many of the protest participants were in London for a symposium on the safety of journalists that was also attended by prominent judges and media lawyers. The discussion focused on how to respond to the growing impunity with which governments and armed groups mistreat or even kill journalists in order to suppress or distort freedom of information.

In almost three decades as a broadcast journalist I covered a number of wars, including Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and El Salvador among others. The work sometimes put me at risk of being wounded or even killed in crossfire. At times it was quite dangerous, but there is a marked difference between what I experienced and what some journalists are facing today. It is one thing to cover a conflict where you are not the target. It is quite another when people are deliberately trying to kill you.

Earlier this month, two AP journalists were shot – one fatally – by a police commissioner in Afghanistan. In Kyiv’s Maidan Square, reporters were targeted by snipers apparently working for the Yanukovich government. In Brazil, over 100 journalists have been injured covering the protests ahead of this summer’s World Cup. Many of these injuries were inflicted by security forces, but some journalists were deliberately attacked – even killed – by protesters. The latter reflects a worrying new theory among some extreme protest groups: injure journalists and you may get the news organizations to pay more attention to your issues.

VOA correspondents in the line of duty have been violently threatened in Mali and the Central African Republic, in Syria and Egypt – on the frontlines of some of the most dangerous places on Earth. Today, we still feel sharply the pain of losing one of our own, two and a half years ago. In January 2012, Mukarram Khan Aatif was shot in the head at point-blank range inside a mosque in Northwest Pakistan. An aide to the local Taliban commander claimed responsibility for the killing, saying, “All reporters of Voice of America are our targets, and should resign. Otherwise, we will kill them.”

Over 600 days ago, Bashar Fahmi, a correspondent for VOA’s sister station TV Alhurra, went missing in Syria while on assignment in the northern city of Aleppo. He has not been heard from since August 20, 2012, when he, his cameraman and two reporters from Japan Press came under fire. Mika Yamamoto of Japan Press was fatally shot in that incident, and Cunyet Unal, Fahmi’s cameraman, was captured but released after 90 days. Anyone who knows anything about Bashar’s whereabouts has a moral obligation to provide that information immediately.

At the symposium in London, we discussed the media’s reluctance sometimes to focus attention on the real and apparently growing threats journalists face. Many news organizations are uncomfortable seeking attention for members of their own profession. We do not want to become the story. We ask ourselves: why should the death of a journalist receive more attention than the death of any other person?

It is time for journalists to get over that reticence. When a story is suppressed, when efforts to collect news are blocked by arrests, or, worst of all murder, the repercussions are broad. An attack on a journalist has more than one victim. It can send ripples throughout the media. Editors understandably think twice about sending reporters to places where they are being targeted or harassed. Self-censorship can set in. That country’s citizens suffer an information vacuum, and the world suffers from it too.

I urge news organizations to do more to cover threats to journalists, and we at VOA will try to do the same. The UN General Assembly has declared this coming November 2nd to be the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. The date carries significance, as it was on November 2nd of last year that two French radio journalists on assignment in Mali were brutally murdered. We will mark that day, and join in the call for an end to the impunity with which some governments and armed groups behave towards journalists. Take a look at the 2014 Impunity Index, a global tally of countries with the highest number of unsolved press murders that has just been issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The numbers are shocking.