Public in the line of fire when reporters are targeted

Published 12:35 am Sunday, October 3, 2010

OXFORD — Hazardous duty occupations include soldiers, sailors, firefighters, law enforcement officers. Right?

But journalists? That’s dangerous work?

It can be.

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The hot spots for killing reporters are now Mexico, where at least 30 writers and photographers have been killed or have disappeared without a trace since 2006, and Iraq, where Reporters Without Borders has documented the deaths of 230 media workers since 2003.

The reasoning behind the killings differs somewhat.

In Mexico, most murders are retaliatory. The idea is to silence the press from reporting on the efforts of Mexican President Felipe Calderon to put drug cartels out of business.

A photographer in New York taking a picture of a “perp walk” of yet another well-coiffed rich dude has little to fear. To do the same in Juarez is for all intents and purposes suicidal. It’s working. The Mexican press isn’t willing to sacrifice lives to report drug arrests. They’re right. It’s not worth it.

In Iraq, many killings have been for “complicity,” not revenge. Soazig Dollet, author of the Reporters Without Borders study, points to the nature of sectarian strife and insurgent warfare.

“Even if they (reporters) do neutral work or independent investigation, people can make a link,” Dollet said. “They consider the media as being created by occupation forces and consider them traitors.”

In an age-old tradition, part of the trend in Iraq is often to kill whole families of journalists or translators or drivers working for the media. When I was in Iraq in 2006, I was with about 15 Iraqi journalists for an event at an orphanage. The next morning there was a news report that eight bodies had been found on a roadside not far away. They were all believed to be media employees, the report said. All had been bound, gagged and shot in the head. Were any of them among those at the orphanage? Were they killed for being seen in the same compound Americans were visiting? No one knows.

What the killings in Mexico and in Iraq do have in common is that rarely are there arrests, much less convictions. It’s not a priority, especially in a war zone. In a civilian setting, as in Mexico, journalists claim no special status, nor do laws regard them in a special way as, in Mississippi, they do law enforcement officers, firefighters and others in government service.

For perspective, Dollet says 63 journalists were killed over 20 years during the Vietnam war. The Freedom Forum says 68 reporters were killed during World War II.

Around the world, the current rate is about three media personnel killed per month or one every 10 days.

An explanation for the explosion in the number of people with media roles being killed is that there are more people working in the field. During World War II, for example, The Associated Press might have had 20 correspondents in the Pacific reporting to millions of readers back home. Today in Baghdad, there might be a blogger in Baghdad with 20 followers — but he or she is still a journalist.

Another factor seems to be a growing recognition that information is power. When President Bush initiated the “shock and awe” air strikes on the Iraqi capital in 2003, radio and TV stations were among the primary targets for the same reason Civil War generals issued standing orders to cut enemy telegraph lines.

Without information, people are left bewildered and confused.

Without neutral information — or at least nongovernment information — people are in even worse shape. They are vulnerable to almost anything.

It’s not likely that many Mexican drug lords are schooled in the finer points of mass communication, but they’re plenty smart enough to know that to control the press — as they are doing — is to control their image. Said in stronger words, the greatest enemy of tyranny is freedom of expression.

On the world stage, the headline is the number of reporters being killed in the line of duty. On the smaller stage, one hears every day about how news organizations, dependent on commerce to sustain them, are cutting back as increasingly scarce advertising dollars are being spread among an ever-widening array of outlets.

Being murdered and being laid off are two entirely different things. The effect on the news and information consumer, however, is much the same: another voice silenced.

“The media” is not popular with the public. “The media” is a constant target of derision.

Could it be a case of, “We don’t know what we have until it’s gone?” We should hope not.

There are a lot of people out there still doing a lot of good journalism.

But it’s becoming more and more hazardous in more and more ways.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail