Toto Mangudadatu hoped that inviting more than 30 journalists to watch him file his candidacy against one of the most powerful families in the Philippines would protect him. Instead, on their way to see him, they were all killed, along with his wife and other family members, in the single deadliest attack against journalists in recent history, nine years ago this month.
The Maguindanao massacre led to a UN day of action. So 2 November became the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists and, last Friday, a vigil was held to mark the brutal killing of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident.
The murder and apparent dismemberment of Khashoggi, who ventured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out, marks a new low in the depravity of the attacks on journalists.
Already this year, 74 journalists have died around the world, according to the International Federation of Journalists, and more than 600 have been killed in the past six years. Nine out of 10 of these murders remain unsolved.
A report to be published next week suggests that journalists are being attacked everywhere – including in Europe, the historic bastion of press freedom. Since 2014, there have been more than 3,000 cases of press freedom violations in 35 European countries tracked by the Mapping Media Freedom monitoring project.
On 9 November, Index on Censorship will catalogue the latest assaults – from assassinations, to journalists being spat at, blocked from news conferences, targeted by anti-terror laws, and threatened with rape or death. The report makes for grim reading little more than a year after investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia died in a car bomb outside her house in Malta.
The Mapping Media Freedom project details verbal threats ranging from the Croatian carnival, which burns effigies of journalists, to the Czech president Miloš Zeman last week joking that he loved journalists so much he was going to send them to the Saudi embassy for a banquet. These incidents may seem a long way from the brutality we’ve recently witnessed, yet they add to a culture in which journalists are degraded and debased.
When he first started reading about these insults and low-level hostility, Index on Censorship’s head of content, Sean Gallagher, said he thought they were par for the course, “part of the job”. But that view has changed over the past four years, and now Gallagher feels “profoundly depressed about the state of the world”. It’s not hard to see why.
The suggestion that the press promulgates fake facts, that their views are worthy of derision, may not be a physical attack but its consequences are just as dangerous.
When the mapping project was first launched, the idea was that journalists themselves would report the abuse; but this hasn’t happened, largely because journalists are busy and partly because they don’t want to make matters worse, according to Gallagher. When the footage surfaced of the bodyguard of Emmanuel Macron beating a protester, a scandal ensued. It subsequently emerged, says Gallagher, that he had previously beaten up a journalist who had not gone public with the assault.
Political attacks on journalists are nothing new, but they have found their apotheosis in Donald Trump and the age of social media. Chipping away at already weak trust in the media has been one of his most successful policies. Where once the United States would at least claim the moral high ground in its geopolitical battles, now the leader of the free world is happy to point out how important Saudi Arabia is to American arms manufacturers. This policy is honesty, but it leaves the world without a powerful moral leader.
Even the European commission, which part-funds the mapping project, has failed to offer a strong condemnation.
Press freedom organisations and trades unions have called on UN member states to back demands for a convention on the protection of journalists. The International Federation of Journalists, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN-IFRA), the European Broadcasting Union and the UNI MEI international workers’ union launched the initiative last month.
The European commission and its leaders should back this initiative at least. It would be even better if western democracies would make it difficult for countries to act against journalist with impunity. For, although UN conventions have been found sadly wanting in our confused and dangerous times, if they don’t, then who will?