Journalists Condemn Government Indifference As Media Death Toll Grows in 2003

The impact of war and conflict on the work of news media cast a long shadow over journalism in 2003 says the International Federation of Journalists which today released its annual report on killings in journalism giving details of at least 83 journalists and media staff killed during the year – 13 more than last year. 

“War, regional conflict, organised crime and government indifference are the greatest obstacles to justice for journalists and their safety,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “We see journalists being targeted for their work in many parts of the world, but many governments simply don’t care about what these tragedies mean for democracy and free expression.”

The war in Iraq and continuing insurgencies in Colombia and the Philippines provided most casualties in a year marked by growing anger within media circles over targeting of journalists. 

The IFJ has called for independent investigations into seven of the 18 deaths in Iraq – Terry Lloyd, who was travelling with missing journalists Fred Nérac and Hussein Osman, both presumed dead, who died in a fire fight near Basra in March; José Couso and Taras Protsiuk who were killed after a US tank attacked the Palestine Hotel where more than 150 media staff were staying in Baghdad; Tareq Ayyoub, who died when a US air launched missile hit the offices of Al-Jazeera in Baghdad; andMazen Dana, the award-winning cameraman who was shot dead by US troops while on assignment in the city after the invasion was over.

The IFJ international Executive Committee meeting in India last month has announced that April 8th 2004, the first anniversary of the Palestine Hotel attack in Baghdad will be an international day of protest and mourning over these killings, which the IFJ says have not been properly explained by US forces. 

These cases have become emblematic of the struggle for greater protection for journalists in conflict zones. The IFJ has called for changes in international law to ensure that targeting of journalists and negligence in the protection of journalists are made war crimes. The IFJ also wants independent inquiries whenever journalists are killed in conflict zones. 

Although Iraq stole many of the headlines in 2003, killings in the Philippines and Colombia have been just as worrying with seven journalists killed in Colombia and one under investigation, with three confirmed killings of journalists in the Philippines and a further four cases under investigation.

In both countries journalists have been targeted for trying to expose political corruption as in the cases of radio reporter Juan Emeterio Rivas and television journalist Guillermo Bravo Vega in Colombia and Apolinario Pobeda and Bonifacio Gregorio in the Philippines. In many cases the hand of the drugs mafia and crime gangs is at work.

“In far too many instances the problem of impunity, and the failure of officials to properly investigate killings of media staff, remains a persistent obstacle to justice for journalists and media staff who are killed,” said White. 

In Colombia the IFJ supported a safety training programme in September and met with the country’s Vice President Francisco Santos who committed his government to fresh work to improve safety of journalists and to develop an organisational framework for protection of journalists. In many cases governments are unable to protect journalists who are targeted by mafia drugs gangs or other agents of organised crime.

But governments should do more says the IFJ and often they only act after organised protest and international outrage forces proper investigation of media killings. The report cites -- Zahra Kazemi in Iran, who was brutally tortured and killed in July while in police custody, where international pressure forced the government to properly investigate the death, and James Miller, the British cameraman killed by Israeli forces in the Palestinian territories, whose death at the hands of Israeli soldiers prompted further outrage and forced an extensive Israeli investigation. 

“Governments would prefer all of these difficult cases to be quietly forgotten,” said White. “But we will never forget.”

Many of the 2003 cases illustrate just why governments need to be put under renewed pressure to deliver credible answers over how and why journalists are being killed. The case of investigative journalist Gyorgy Gongadze, brutally murdered in the Ukraine three years ago, has come to symbolise the need for a global campaign against impunity, further highlighted by the case of Russian journalist Alikhan Gulieyev this year and that of Ukraine newspaper journalist Volodimir Karachenzev who was apparently discovered hanged on the handle of a fridge. 

The demand for justice for journalists is gathering strength. The IFJ has added to the debate with its own report on the Iraq war and the report adds further to the unease over casual attitudes to the loss of life among news gatherers. 

The crisis for news safety has led during 2003 to the establishment of the International News Safety Institute, an industry-led initiative, supported by leading media companies and journalists’ unions. “At last, the media industry is recognising that it must do more to reduce the risks to reporters and news teams, and particularly to freelances who are among the most vulnerable,” said White. “Now the message must be driven home to governments that they, too, must do more to bring the killers to justice.”

Journalists and Media Staff Killed in 2003

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The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries