A gun-carrying journalist, and rightly so

I frequently advise journalists not to carry arms because doing so “can undermine your status as an observer,” which in violent and lawless societies is precisely what keeps reporters safe.

But I make an exception for Cándido Figueredo Ruíz, a Paraguayan crime reporter who has been threatened, shot at, and attacked so many times that he barely leaves his home. When he does, he’s surrounded by a phalanx of heavily armed bodyguards. He carries his own Glock automatic handgun.

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Ruíz with his handgun that he keeps on his desk. (Photo: John Otis)

Figueredo, 59, is a correspondent for the national daily, ABC Color, in Pedro Juan Caballero, a Paraguayan city that borders Brazil. The town is a global hub for drug trafficking and smuggling, and after more than 20 years of naming names Figueredo is a marked man.

“It never passed through my head to arm myself,” Figueredo told me in a recent interview. “But at the end of the day, you can’t count on someone else to risk their life for yours. I understand people who criticize me for being armed. I just ask them to live with me for one week. I think they will change their opinion.”

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In recognition of his fearless reporting, Figueredo will receive the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award at a gala dinner this month in New York. He will be honored alongside journalists from Syria, Ethiopia, and Malaysia who, like him, have put their life and liberty on the line to bring people the news.

Part of the rationale behind the CPJ award is that honoring frontline reporters like Figueredo actually makes them more secure by giving them international visibility, subjecting their attackers to public scrutiny and scorn.

The strategy works, but also has its limitations.

Over the years, several former CPJ award winners have been attacked and killed. In 1996, a year after receiving the award, Irish reporter Veronica Guerin was murdered by a drug gang just outside Dublin. In November 1997, also a year after being honored, Mexican editor Jesús Blancornelas was ambushed and shot by a cartel hit squad on his way to work in Tijuana. He lived, but his bodyguard was killed. Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana, who had been honored by CPJ in 2001 for courageous reporting in his native Palestine, was shot dead in 2003 by a US tank gunner in Iraq, who mistook his camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

These deaths are personally painful, and not only because they involve friends and colleagues. They also present a fundamental challenge to what we do at CPJ, which in the case of our awards is to use the media spotlight to try and keep our vulnerable colleagues safe.

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Ruíz with bodyguards outside his home/office in Pedro Juan Caballero. (Photo: John Otis)

In his 2010 book, Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places, author Terry Gould looks at why journalists take extreme risks. He argues that some journalists are willing to become martyrs for the truth because they believe their death will push their societies toward justice. Such journalists cannot be deterred by threats, bribes, or attacks and thus, in Gould’s words, they become “unstoppable, except by murder.”

I have seen many such cases. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead outside her Moscow apartment in October 2006, was warned repeatedly that her death was inevitable if she continued to report on the Chechen conflict. The 2002 murder of Colombian editor Orlando Sierra was also foretold. He told an interviewer shortly before his murder, “I am immune when I’m writing but very vulnerable once something is published.” Sri Lankan editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, killed in 2009, wrote in a letter to be released in the event of his murder, “People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted.”

Just last month, two Syrian journalists were murdered in Turkey by Islamic State militants who, after pretending to defect from the group, lured the journalists to their apartment in the city of Urfa, where they murdered them with knives. One of those killed, Ibrahim Abd Al-Qader, was a member of the media collective Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which CPJ will honor at the November 24 dinner.

After fleeing to Syria, the murderer sent a text message saying, “We killed Ibrahim to break your hearts and will come after you with another knife.” RBSS vowed to continue its reporting from Syria despite the death threats.

Figueredo does not believe the CPJ award will assure him of a long life. “Each day I tell my wife, Patricia, as we go to bed: That was one more day,” he says. “I’m conscious of the fact that narcos can kill me so I don’t think about the future.”

But Figueredo is also an idealist, one with advice for young reporters who might seek to follow down his path. “Love journalism,” Figueredo says. “Because only when you love what you do can you put in the effort required to continue in the profession and sacrifice what is most valuable to us as human beings.”

Figueredo says he’s tremendously bolstered by getting the award. To Figueredo, the award made him realize that he is not alone, and that people around the world support his work. He sees his upcoming trip to New York as both a vindication and a reprieve. “Just to walk through the streets will be a party,” he explained. “To feel free, to sit in a cafe or have glass of wine in a restaurant — and if it’s possible in a place with a big crowd — will be stupendous, almost unthinkable for us from here.”

As author Terry Gould notes, the only way to stop journalists like Figueredo from doing their job as a journalist is to kill them. One day — as horrible as it is to contemplate — someone might succeed. That’s as motivating as anything to ensure he has all the support we can give. Even more important, it brings us humility. In an era of rampant cynicism about the media there is a lonely reporter in a remote corner of Paraguay prepared to give his life to report the news.

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Joel Simon is a CJR columnist and the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His second book, The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom, was published by Columbia University Press in November 2014.