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Record Death Toll for Journalists

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Journalists' safety has become big business. Security companies, often employing former British and South African commandos, are thriving. Since the Balkans wars of the 1990s no editor of a major news outlet will send reporters to the frontline unless they receive "hostile environment" training from one of these firms. Yet despite this heightened safety awareness, more journalists than ever are dying for bearing witness with a camera or notebook.

A jungle ambush of political campaigners in the Philippines and the endless slaughter for control of the crumbling streets of Somalia have pushed the death toll for journalists around the world to its highest since the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) began keeping records in 1992.

So far this year, at least 68 journalists have been shot, bludgeoned or bombed. This is more than at the height of the violence in Iraq when it was too dangerous even for many Iraqi reporters to walk the streets of Baghdad.

The massacre of 57 people last month in an ambush motivated by political clan rivalries in the southern Philippines is a tragedy in itself. But it also marks a low point in media history. Among the dead were dozens of journalists who were covering the election campaign in Maguindanao province. CPJ consultant Shawn Crispin who visited the area reports that 29 journalists and two media support workers were gunned down in the November 23 ambush.

Some of the journalists on the road that fateful day had indeed received security training, Crispin says. They were accompanying a convoy of supporters bound for the provincial capital to file candidacy papers for a local political leader contesting the provincial governorship. The reporters had decided to travel in a large group for added security and they had advised a senior local military commander of their movements.

But sadly their precautions proved futile in an area where political violence is endemic, and where the rule of law is constantly undermined. Crispin quotes Mike Dobbie, a security trainer for the International Federation of Journalists, as saying local reporting safety measures will have to be entirely revised given the likelihood of more violence in the run up to elections next May.

The backdrop to this slaughter is decades of impunity. Earlier this year CPJ ranked the Philippines as the worst country in the world for a democracy in peace time for its abysmal record of solving journalists' murders. When politicians, police and judges consistently fail to bring the killers of journalists to justice, then it's open season on reporters and editors who unmask corrupt officials and criminals.

Security training focuses understandably on surviving in a war zone. But CPJ research shows that most journalists don't die because they are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, the unfortunate victims of crossfire or a terrorist bombing. More than three-quarters of journalist deaths are targeted murders, and the killers nearly always get away with it. Of the 68 deaths recorded this year 11 were in crossfire in a combat zone, while seven reporters were killed covering dangerous assignments such as police raids or street protests.

The remaining 50 were selected and killed, often at the hands of hired assassins, in direct retaliation for their work. Russia is always high on the list of targeted killings and this year is no exception. In July, four men forced prominent investigative journalist and human rights activist Natalya Estemirova, into a car in Grozny, capital of Chechnya. She shouted that she was being kidnapped as the car sped away. She was never heard from again. Her body was found later that day in the neighboring region of Ingushetia with gunshots to the head and chest. In September, CPJ published Anatomy of Injustice, a report examining the scourge of journalist murders in Russia, which elicited a government pledge to re-examine several cases.

Mexico, with its drug cartels and chronic corruption, is another minefield for conscientious reporters. In Durango state, kidnappers snatched crime reporter Eliseo Barrón Hernández in front of his wife and two young daughters. His body turned up in a ditch the next day. He had been reporting on police corruption before his murder.

These and scores of brutal assassinations like them around the world poison press freedom. Journalists who bury a colleague but never see the killer in a court of law may think twice before writing. Self-censorship has become a survival technique for many reporters from Mexico to Pakistan. Indeed, whole newsrooms in Mexico have decided to stop investigating organized crime and give only the barest, publicly available details of drug-cartel related violence.

Yet this year's killed list is filled with journalists who were not intimidated. Among them was
Lasantha Wickramatunga, a Sri Lankan editor known for his critical reporting on the conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and Tamil separatists. Government forces defeated the rebels this year after 26 years of fighting. In January, Wickramatunga wrote in The Sunday Leader: "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."

Shortly after the column appeared, eight helmeted men on four motorcycles stopped Wickramatunga as he drove on a Colombo street and beat him to death.

This year's news is grim. But as journalists, we owe it to Wickramatunga and those like him, to continue to fight to improve the security of all who write and report.

Security training for the media has undoubtedly saved lives and should be available and affordable for all who put themselves in harm's way to report news. Hopeless as it may seem in the aftermath of such a tragedy in the Philippines, a sustained fight against impunity can be effective. Since it launched its Impunity Campaign in the Philippines with local journalists group two years ago, CPJ has helped win venue changes in the trials of suspects accused of involvement in journalists' slayings to prevent witnesses intimidation. Such victories may seem small but they are vital bricks that we must build in the wall against impunity. The massacre in Mindanao should also serve as a warning to governments elsewhere that impunity, if unaddressed, is a challenge to the authority of the state.