SXSW Panel Explores the Rising Number of Journalists Killed on the Job
Free press under fire
A likely place to begin a discussion of the human costs of journalism is with the Committee to Protect Journalists' listing for Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist-in-exile assassinated by Saudi government agents at the country's Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2, 2018. The listing provides a brief summary of the "deeply depraved" murder, and under "Case Status" notes: "Complete Impunity."
Most of the world is now familiar with Khashoggi's singular case, but he is also just one representative instance in the CPJ's current campaign against "Global Impunity." CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney C. Radsch, one of the participants in "The Human Cost of Journalism" panel for SXSW, told the Chronicle that CPJ monitoring reflects that "in nearly 9 out of 10 cases of journalists murdered, the killer goes free." Radsch is hoping the panel will help raise public awareness about the issue, and about the number of journalists killed worldwide in the course of their work. "The murder of Jamal Khashoggi," she says, "really highlighted the danger that journalists face around the world."
Another panel member, Karen Attiah, was Khashoggi's editor and colleague at The Washington Post, where he wrote a regular column on international affairs. The morning I spoke with Attiah, she and her Post colleague David Ignatius had just been given the prestigious George Polk Award for their ongoing work on Khashoggi's story. "It's very bittersweet," Attiah said. "I'm heartened that the whole world knows his name now. ... We're not done – by we, I mean everybody who knew Jamal – and the Post is still not finished with the effort of accountability and honoring him and his legacy."
Attiah and Radsch both say that Khashoggi's story is representative of the threats faced by journalists everywhere (including the U.S.), starkly reflected in CPJ's annual statistics. "We categorize them as 'killed in crossfire,' 'dangerous assignments,' or 'murdered,'" explained Radsch. "Last year, there were 53 journalists killed; 34 of those journalists were murdered. That represents an 88% increase over 2017, in which 18 journalists were murdered, out of the total of 47 journalists killed. ... The percentage of journalists murdered increased significantly."
Attiah had recently returned from visiting her family in Ghana, ranked highly among African countries for press freedom. Yet while she was there, journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale was assassinated by gunmen, apparently in retribution for his reporting on corruption, after a Ghanaian politician had publicized his face and name. "Jamal has become the global symbol," said Attiah. "But there are just so many journalists – and not just journalists, but just people who are outspoken. People around the world pay the price for just speaking their minds and wanting to pursue the truth."
Both panelists noted the foreboding effects of the Trump administration, and of Donald Trump's repeated denunciations both of alleged "fake news" and of reporters, in Stalinist fashion, as "enemies of the people." Such statements by Trump and his supporters, said Radsch, "have led to a deterioration in the conditions globally. It sends a signal to those in power around the world that it's okay to attack journalists, and that the United States is not going to push back."