“Murder works”: Why the killing of journalists is getting easier

In this Q&A, J-Source contributor, Jeffrey Dvorkin, asked Vancouver-based investigative journalist Terry Gould about the state of investigative journalism in non-Western countries and
the passion that compels journalists there.

Terry GouldGould, who focuses on organized crime and social issues, has won 48 awards and other honours for his

His most recent book, Murder Without Borders: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places (Random House Canada), profiles seven
extraordinary journalists who have been killed in pursuit of the story.

book has been praised by Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to
Protect Journalists,
as “a book of love and passion…uplifting and even

Q:  What do you think motivated the journalists you wrote about?  Did they have a more highly developed sense of outrage than the rest of us? Are they just more courageous?

 T.G.: The seven local journalists I wrote about were all very different people.  However, they all shared one remarkable trait: they had reached a point where they were willing to accept death as a consequence of their reporting.

 As journalists under threat, they had three options: they could flee; they could agree to stay silent; or they could continue to expose the murderers and thieves who dominated their homelands.

 Where they were different from the rest of us was in the length of time they maintained their courage under terrifying conditions.  Indeed, they had all predicted their own deaths.  Yet they refused to bow to threats.

 In this extraordinary way, they were more courageous than the rest of us.

 Q:  According to organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters sans frontières, 735 journalists worldwide have been killed since 1992 — the majority of those being local reporters.  That makes murder the leading cause of death for journalists in non-Western countries.  In your book, you say it’s more dangerous for journalists than ever before.  Is there a reason why that’s happening now?

 T.G.: In some countries it’s more dangerous than ever before, in other countries it’s as dangerous as ever, and in still others it’s statistically safer today than a year ago, although local journalists still expect they can be murdered at any time if they pursue a story.

That’s because murder works.  It is the ultimate form of press censorship, eliminating the immediate problem and often intimidating others into silence.  It works best when it occurs with impunity, and in the most murderous countries, impunity reigns. Where people can get away with murder, they will murder again.  Impunity from prosecution for the murder of a journalist goes hand-in-hand with the murder of more journalists

Q: Media organizations in the West seem less and less committed to investigative reporting (for financial reasons, among others), while it appears to be the opposite in other countries.  Why the difference?

T.G.: The best journalism is always produced by individuals obsessed with a story, not organizations that assign and fund stories.  All of the local journalists I wrote about were either independent of organizations or else ferociously preserved their independence within organizations.  Likewise, many journalists in the West reflect this dedication — even within media organizations.

Here’s the crux of the problem, shared around the world.  Most journalists start their careers believing they are both reporters and investigators.  Reporting is the easier task — who, what, where and when are all in the first sentence of an article or TV image.  The rest of an article or TV piece should investigate “why.” However, uncovering “why” takes time. Time is money.  If there is no money, and therefore no time, the “why” often goes unanswered, to the frustration of journalists who are on the story.

But journalists can pursue the “why” of a story on their own time.  While some media organizations in the West find it difficult to sustain a long term investigation, I don’t believe they are ignorant of the fact that the “why” is truly the heart of a breaking story.  Expose an official who’s a thief and you have a three-day story; expose a system that has allowed thievery for a decade, and you can lead the media pack for a year.

Q: Some say we’ve entered a period of post-Iraq war fatigue where audiences just don’t want to hear about overseas news, and news organizations are happy just to cut costs.  How do you respond to that?

T.G.: While there is public fatigue in watching street battles with no context, people of all ages and preoccupations are genetically programmed to feel compassion when they witness helpless need.

Never lose faith that you can communicate that suffering by going where it is greatest and giving human portraits of the lives of the suffering.  If you think it can’t be done in “today’s climate,” you will sink into a narrow well of cynicism that reveals only a small part of the sky.

As one of the murdered journalists I wrote about advised, “Remind yourself that you speak for those who have no voice.  Place your skills in the service of the poor and you will be happy.”

You can hope for personal advancement, but not if it means sacrificing your ultimate goal: advancing a cause for which you are willing to give up all personal advancement.  Don’t complain about “the state of modern journalism.”  Practice your profession at all costs, and you will be happy.

Q: Does the relative absence of Western journalists in developing countries make it more or less dangerous for local and freelance reporters?

T.G.: The presence of Western journalists can make it more and less dangerous for local reporters in developing countries.

On the one hand, Western journalists often don’t speak the local language and don’t know their way around a cratered landscape; thus, they are dependent on local journalists, whom they hire as fixers.  This inevitably makes the local fixers into targets, since they are helping foreigners report on dangerous people in dangerous territory.

Foreign press organizations should provide the same round-the-clock protection for their fixers as they do for their own reporters.  They don’t, and after driving around all day with a Western reporter, fixers go home to neighbourhoods filled with informants, and are marked for death.

On the other hand, in some countries, the presence of the Western press can be a shield.  Massive international coverage of the murder of a local journalist can sometimes make the authorities think twice about murdering another local reporter.  (I emphasize the word sometimes.)

On balance, the more press the better, but in dangerous countries, journalism is a hazardous game, no matter how you look at it.

Q:  More western-based freelancers (like Amanda Lindhout from Alberta) are going to hot spots and getting into trouble — being held for ransom or in some cases, even murdered . In effect, they are experiencing the dangers regularly encountered by local journalists.  What can be done to help freelancers who may be putting themselves in danger through their own inexperience, idealism or naiveté?

T.G.: At this writing, Lindhout has been chained to a wall for almost a year.  Such suffering is unimaginable, except, perhaps, in our worst nightmares.  If, as a freelancer, you bring your worst nightmares to the front of your mind, you are less likely to take extreme risks at the outset of a project.  Always keep a picture of the worst outcome in mind.

That said, Western-based freelancers do not truly experience the same dangers encountered by local journalists.  A small number are kidnapped or murdered, but in the vast majority of cases, they “experience” danger and then leave.  Local journalists, on the other hand, live with those dangers for years, yet they continue to target the powerful in their own communities, all the while going home to bungalows with nothing between themselves and murder but a quarter-inch plywood door.

As far as “what can be done to help freelancers,” there is one answer: advise freelancers to prepare for weeks or months before entering a danger zone.  Three people should be at the top of a freelancer’s contact list before leaving home: a local press freedom advocate, a fixer, and an interpreter, all of whom should accompany the journalist on his or her assignment.  In most cases, these three people will not go on a suicide mission for the sake of what a freelancer can afford to pay them.  If one backs out, the freelancer should too.

Q: Your book notes how heedless to their personal safety many journalists in developing countries have become.  What can be done to help make them safer?

T.G.: There is one sure way for a local journalist to invite death in a dangerous country, and that is to insult the honor of the target of an investigative report.  Treating bad people with dignity is no guarantee of protection against retribution, but it can lessen the urge of an exposed leader to murderously retaliate for an exposé.

When I talk with overseas local journalists, I urge them to edit out contemptuous editorializing and insert a factual statement that the target of their investigation would like other people to know.  If the target is handsome or beautiful, there is nothing wrong with pointing that out.  If the target garners tremendous loyalty from followers, say it and explain why.

This seems like simple advice, but it goes against the emotional tone of journalism in developing countries, where insults are regularly hurled – particularly in broadcast journalism.  In the most murderous countries for journalism, this must stop.  Journalists must leave room for the public to conclude that the target has another side to his or her story. The public will judge whether that side is implausible.

A rule of thumb: if you live in a country where powerful people are regularly murdering journalists, leave the killers a corner of the human room to stand.  You can expose but you shouldn’t humiliate.  The killers have impunity.  You don’t.

Q: Was there one event or one journalist who inspired you to write this book?

T.G.: All of the journalists were inspiring to write about, but the one who inspired me the most was Manik Chandra Saha of Bangladesh.  Before I arrived in Bangladesh, I had discovered complex emotional sources for the bravery of journalists who had given their lives for a story.  But in Manik Saha, I found something more difficult to explain: selflessness that seemed to come from pure goodness.

Saha was an atheist who believed that evolution had produced, through natural selection, a “law of goodness” that most people instinctively knew they should follow.  He interpreted the law of goodness as requiring that he put others ahead of himself, and, since living by that law promoted his own personal happiness, he had a scientific code of truth that always instructed him on the proper way to behave.

When he put this code into action as a journalist and humanitarian, millions of religious Bengalis began to consider Manik Saha a saint.  After investigating his life, I did too.  Thinking of others ahead of yourself really does make you happy, and journalism is one of the few professions that allow you to continually put the needs of others ahead of your own.

The US launch of Terry Gould’s book is currently scheduled to take place at the Newseum’s Journalist Memorial in Washington, DC on Sunday, September 20, and at the headquarters of the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York on Tuesday, September 22.  The US edition will be entitled Marked for Death: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places.