As the stakes rise for reliable journalism, so does the body count

When asked during a November 2016 press conference about allegations that public procurement rules had been broken during Slovakia’s European Union presidency, former Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico lashed out at the journalists present, calling them “filthy, anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Just more than a year later, on February 25, 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were found shot dead in their home in Slovakia. Kuciak had been in the midst of an investigation into alleged links between the Italian mafia and Fico’s ruling party and the alleged embezzlement of EU funds. In his unfinished reporting, which his colleagues eventually completed and published, Kuciak accused Fico of direct involvement.

Kuciak’s murder sent shockwaves throughout Slovakia, where journalists are not typically killed as a consequence of their reporting. Mass protests erupted in the streets, forcing Fico and multiple other government officials to resign. 

The international community was outraged that a journalist was murdered in an EU member state less than six months after Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s premier investigative journalist, had been murdered in October 2017.

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Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) recently-published report on abuses faced by journalists in 2018 illustrates the lengths to which predators of press freedom will go to silence the truth.

From the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Turkish consulate to the shooting at Maryland’s Capital Gazette, the use of violence to stifle reporting defies borders. From covert government-organized assassinations to terrorist-led airstrikes, journalists often put themselves in grave danger to pursue a story. 

This danger has proven especially grave for those who expose corruption and the work of criminal organizations. RSF’s reporting shows more than half of the 82 journalists killed thus far in 2018 were deliberately targeted, and criminal organizations murdered at least 12.

Investigative journalists in Latin America live in a climate of constant fear. Each year, Mexico ranks among the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, falling behind only Afghanistan and Syria according to RSF’s report on journalists killed in 2018. This year, nine journalists were murdered there in connection with their work and 11 were murdered the year prior. The majority of these journalists were killed for exposing the links between organized crime groups and corrupt politicians, many of whom are complicit in the production of cocaine and the trafficking of narcotics. 

The murders of these journalists, of which 90 percent are carried out with complete impunity, reinforce the stronghold enjoyed by drug cartels, government actors, the police force, and the military, all of which work together to silence the investigations of reporters.

Mario Leonel Gómez Sánchez was gunned down in broad daylight right outside his home in Yajalon, Chiapas on the evening of September 21. Gomez, a correspondent for the regional daily El Heraldo, had previously received threats for his reporting on the increasing level of criminal activity and violence linked to municipal officials in the region. His death was carried out weeks after members of the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (FEADLE) announced that the government was yet again cutting back funding for protection.

On December 1, the day of the inauguration of newly-elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the bullet-ridden body of Jesús Alejandro Márquez Jiménez was found abandoned on the side of the road just hours after his family reported him missing. Marquez was an outspoken critic of the links between local officials and organized crime groups in the state of Nayarit. The perpetrators of the murders of Marquez and Sanchez were never caught, nor has any serious investigation been launched into their deaths.

Two Ecuadorian journalists, Javier Ortega and Paul Rivas, and their driver Efraín Segarra, faced a similar fate in Colombia in March. Ortega, Rivas, and Segarra were kidnapped while reporting on an Ecuadorian village just miles from the Colombian border that had seen numerous clashes between authorities and drug traffickers since coca plantations and cocaine laboratories began moving there at the start of the year. Their abduction was carried out by the Frente Oliver Sinisterra, a drug-trafficking group that is an offshoot of Colombia’s largest armed guerilla group, the FARC. A photograph of the men in chains was circulated in the news the following month, and they were later confirmed dead by the armed group. Their bodies were not recovered until June. The leader of Frente Oliver Sinisterra remains at large.

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In India, police departments that are complicit in environmental corruption essentially guarantee impunity for those who attack, threaten, or murder reporters for covering their wrongdoings. Sandeep Sharma, a reporter who covered a local “sand mafia” — criminal groups that provide construction companies with sand taken from illegal mines and quarries — was deliberately run down and killed by a truck in March. Though he had informed police about the death threats he had received, they took no action, presumably because he had discovered a local police chief’s links to this mafia. He was one of at least seven killed between 2015 and 2018 for exposing environmental corruption involving resources like sand, minerals, petroleum or timber.

From arbitrary detentions to murder in cold blood, predators of press freedom will go to astonishing lengths to silence the truth.

And yet, after the murders of Kuciak and Caruana Galizia, networks of journalists picked up their stories and continued their work.

The dire need for human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia that Khashoggi had advocated for was only amplified by his death. 

And despite the horrific murder of their five colleagues, the staff of Maryland’s Capital Gazette “put out the damn paper” the very next day.

Even in the face of unprecedented violence and hostility, journalists remain strong and resilient in their resolve to shine light on the truth. And until concrete measures are taken by governing bodies to ensure the protection of journalists on a global scale, RSF will continue to make sure the sacrifices they make every day are not in vain.

Margaux Ewen is the North America Director for Reporters Without Borders, one of the world’s leading Non-Governmental Organizations in defense and promotion of freedom of information, with consultative status with the United Nations, UNESCO, the Council of Europe and the International Organization of the Francophonie. Ewen has degrees from the Sorbonne and George Washington University Law School.