Journalists defy dangers because they understand that their role is a necessary check on the ambition and vanity of the rich and powerful. Protecting reporters has never been so necessary.
Ten journalists were killed in two attacks in Afghanistan on Monday along with 26 other people who seem to have been collateral damage. All of these deaths were tragedies for everyone who loved the victims. But attacks on journalists, like attacks on doctors or judges, are not just attacks on individuals and their families: they aim to tear the connective tissue of society. Not all journalists are singled out for killing, of course. Those who never attack the powerful or do not put themselves in harm’s way are unlikely to be victims.
Yet neither is it necessary to display the extraordinary determination of the Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bomb near her home last year, in order to be at risk. Often it is enough to be doing the unglamorous work of reporting what happens in plain sight, to ensure that no one turns away from what should be in front of their noses. There are times and places when the simple truth is in itself a provocation to thugs and criminals. In Afghanistan, as in Pakistan, in Mexico, and above all in Syria, journalists are killed simply for recording the atrocities around them.
Even if most journalists are killed by gangsters and mafiosi, these are not the only threats. In surprisingly few countries can they rely on the impartial protection of an effective state. Last year there were 42 outstanding unsolved killings of journalists in the Philippines, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists; in Mexico and Pakistan there were 21 each; in Somalia, after a long civil war, there are 26 outstanding cases. In some countries like Russia, where 38 journalists have been murdered since 1992 and many of those cases remain unsolved, it is extremely difficult to disentangle the gangsters from the government. Just as with hacking gangs in cyberspace, the use of tame criminals can supply a government with a faint shimmer of deniability, however implausible.