Violence against journalists, and the daily barrage of verbal attacks on them from some political leaders, represent an assault on an essential pillar of democracy. One way to fight back is a stronger public defense of journalism’s value to society, including greater emphasis on ending impunity for attacks on its practitioners.
AMSTERDAM – Five years ago this month, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and, in a nightmare lasting just minutes, killed 12 people. In the days that followed, millions marched in France and elsewhere to express solidarity with the murdered journalists.
For Europeans, the Charlie Hebdo killings represented the first mass attack on journalists close to home. #JeSuisCharlie (“I am Charlie”) became one of the most popular Twitter hashtags ever. Press freedom was trending.
Since then, however, the fight to defend journalistic freedom has flagged, and public mobilization has proved to be fleeting – including in the case of Charlie Hebdo. In January 2019, the magazine’s staff complained in an editorial that people no longer wanted to hear about the shootings. “Perhaps you should move on!” they were reportedly told.
This apparent indifference has a lot to do with what many believe Charlie Hebdo represents: the freedom to express yourself in a way that might provoke others. And this freedom has come under even more pressure in the last five years.
Such a trend is evident in the responses directed at journalists who shine a light on unpopular or inconvenient facts and opinions. They are exposed to a daily barrage of attacks on their integrity, including by important political leaders. In the United States, President Donald Trump has repeatedly referred to journalists who are critical of him as the “enemy of the people.” And at a press conference two years ago, Czech President Miloš Zeman brandished a replica of an AK-47 inscribed with the words “for journalists.” By indulging in such behavior, these and other leaders normalize attacks against members of the press.
And members of the press are very much under attack. According to Reporters Without Borders, 49 journalists worldwide were murdered in 2019 because of their work. (The annual average for the last five years is even higher, at 81.) In addition, the number of journalists who were arbitrarily detained rose to 389 last year. Threats on social media, against female journalists in particular, are an everyday occurrence, and journalists are routinely beaten up, teargassed, or robbed of their equipment.
Violence against journalists is an assault on an essential pillar of democracy. And as long as these attacks continue, it is not “time to move on” at all.
On the contrary, it’s time for European Union leaders to wake up and better protect journalists at risk. Efforts like the PersVeilig initiative in the Netherlands, in which police, public prosecutors, the journalists’ union, and editors collaborate to counter violence against journalists, should be implemented across Europe. Politicians who verbally attack journalists must be held accountable, and media organizations should do more to show solidarity with colleagues at rival outlets.
More generally, there is an urgent need for greater awareness and a stronger public defense of journalism’s value for society. And there have been successful examples of this in recent years. The murders of journalists Ján Kuciak in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta sparked mass protests that forced these two countries’ prime ministers to resign. In addition, the investigation by United Nations Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for The Washington Post, raised public awareness of the criminal behavior of the Saudi Arabian leadership.
These cases needed – and received – long-term attention. But who has heard of Norma Sarabia from Mexico, or Eduardo Dizon from the Philippines, who also paid the ultimate price for practicing their profession? Nigerian journalist Jones Abiri went to prison for the second time last year on trumped-up charges, while a Nicaraguan photographer recently told us that he has stopped working as a journalist for the time being, because it meant risking his life every day. Who is standing up for these lesser-known figures?1
The justice system should give higher priority to prosecuting attacks against journalists, yet a series of relevant resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and Security Council has yielded limited results. A better way to end judicial inaction would be to establish an internationally mandated investigation committee, which also would clear the way to resolving the hundreds of cold cases of journalists killed for doing their job.
Five years ago, we were all Charlie. Today, let us also be the hundreds of other journalists who have been killed since then.
Leon Willems is Director of Free Press Unlimited.
The text has been adapted from Project Syndicate website