Covering War on the Cheap

Study finds local journalists are most at risk for killing

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) published its third annual Global Impunity Index last week, pointing fingers at countries where murders of journalists go unpunished. The nations topping the list—Iraq, Somalia, and the Philippines—probably surprised few. Less noted, but perhaps more telling, was this statistic: worldwide, more than 90 percent of victims in such killings are local reporters covering sensitive topics in their home countries.

“You can have a lot of publicity [for journalists murdered with impunity] and it doesn’t really do much good, especially when it comes to protecting local journalists who are simply trying to cover local issues,” said Kathleen Carroll, executive editor of The Associated Press and moderator of an April 20 panel on the CPJ findings.

Press freedom advocates on the panel said the financial woes of the journalism industry are exacerbating the perils for local journalists. As American and Western news outlets have slashed budgets and downsized bureaus around the world, they’ve increased their reliance on freelancers and local reporters, some of whom cover dangerous stories—such as Afghanistan and Pakistan—with little to no training.

That issue touched a raw nerve for Owais Aslam Ali, secretary general for the Pakistan Press Foundation.

“This war is being covered by the international media on the cheap,” Ali said of the conflict in Afghanistan, which has spilled over into Pakistan’s dangerous tribal territories. “The brunt of the fallback is being met by local journalists reporting for foreign media, where you have to push the limits beyond what is acceptable.”

CPJ’s report called 2009 “a year in which journalists [in Pakistan] faced intense pressure from militants and enormous challenges in covering a series of military offensives.” Of the 13 journalists murdered there since 2002—most of whom are local Pakistani reporters—authorities have won convictions in just one case: the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Pearl’s case made international headlines, but the murder of local reporters rarely draws such coverage. The only other case in Pakistan that drew heavy attention was that of Hayatullah Khan, a freelance journalist kidnapped, held for several months, and eventually killed in 2006. Despite international pressure and sustained efforts to bring Khan’s murderers to justice, the case remains unsolved.

“The kind of attention, the kind of pressure that is required [for convictions] may not be possible in every case,” said Ali, “especially in the case of local journalists.”

Because of their vulnerability—and because Western organizations couldn’t report the news without them—Ali said those news organizations need to offer the local journalists they employ “the same level of security, the same level of training, the same level of responsibility that they [give] their correspondents in the capital city.”

The CPJ report and panel highlighted a range of dangers that the group contends are exacerbated by the failure of governments to find and convict the killers of journalists.

Sergey Sokolov, deputy editor of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has lost five of his reporters in the last decade; all were murdered while reporting on sensitive stories. Little progress has been made to address impunity in Russia, he said, and the result is that the dangers for local journalists continue to rise. Sokolov said he is less concerned about finding the killers of those already dead than he is with keeping his current staff safe.

“We have a new tendency now where they’re not killing journalists,” said Sokolov, “but maiming them, smashing [their hands] with hammers.”

In the Philippines, number three on CPJ’s impunity list, press groups are urging local journalists to approach stories with more caution.

“For so long, news organizations did not have safety measures,” said Melinda Quinto de Jesus, executive director for the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility in the Philippines.

She said a sense of adventure pushes some local Filipino journalists to travel to dangerous areas and ignore basic safety measures, such as telling colleagues of their plans. “Part of the advocacy has been to say, ‘Hey folks, let’s not help the people get at you,’ ” she said. “Preserve yourselves, so that you can continue to cover the stories.”

In Afghanistan and Iraq, local journalists have a big advantage over foreign correspondents, said Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for CPJ.

“The battlefield has become just too dangerous for anyone to walk around unprotected, and those local reporters who can do that, because they blend in, they fit in, they know all the players, they’re the ones increasingly at risk,” he said. “They are the ones we saw pay an incredible price in Iraq.”

According to CPJ’s impunity index, of the 88 unsolved journalist murders in Iraq over the past decade, all but seven cases involved local journalists.

Local journalists in Afghanistan are at greatest risk when they are with a foreigner, Dietz said. Foreigners are more likely to be kidnapped and later released. The more common fate for the local journalists, he said: they are killed.

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Sherisse Pham is a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously worked as a freelance journalist in Beijing for more than four years, where she interned for CNN and wrote for The South China Morning Post,, WWD, and People, among others.