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In Index, a pattern of death, a roadmap for solutions

Activists protest impunity in journalist murders in the Philippines. (AFP/Noel Celis)

Gerardo Ortega's news and talk show on DWAR in Puerto Princesa, Philippines, went off as usual on the morning of January 24, 2011. Ortega, like many radio journalists in the Philippines, was outspoken about government corruption, particularly as it concerned local mining issues. His show over, Ortega left the studios and headed to a local clothing store to do some shopping. There, he was shot in the back of the head. His murder underlines the characteristics and security challenges common to many of the killings documented as part of CPJ's new Impunity Index: A well-known local journalist whose daily routines were easily tracked, Ortega had been followed and killed by a hired gunman. He had been threatened many times before in response to his tough political commentary, a pattern that shows up time and again on CPJ's Impunity Index.

Getting Away With Murder
CPJ's 2013 Impunity Index

In compiling its new Impunity Index, CPJ documented murder cases worldwide that occurred from January 1, 2003, through December 31, 2012, and that remain unsolved. CPJ then calculated the number of unsolved cases as a percentage of each country's population, thus identifying the nations where journalists are murdered regularly and the killers go unpunished.

But the underlying cases, put together, offer a mosaic of the situations in which reporters are most at risk. When I took a close look at the murders that occurred in 2012, several trends stood out. All 25 victims were local journalists, and about 85 percent had covered politics. Many of the victims focused on corruption, produced multiple reports on the same topic, and were outspoken in their views. The large majority worked for small to mid-sized radio stations, websites, or newspapers that could provide little to no institutional support or protection.

Because of the public nature of their work, the victims were easily identified and their routines readily tracked by their killers. Among the 2012 victims, six were targeted on their commute to and from work. Nine other victims were killed as they went about their daily routines: giving prayer as Mukarram Khan Aatif was doing at a mosque in Pakistan; drinking tea as Rajesh Mishra was doing at a public stall in India; or having a drink as Décio Sá was doing at a bar in Brazil.

Another seven were killed in or near their home. In Somalia, a gunman killed Hassan Osman Abdi as the radio station director was entering his home. Earlier that day, witnesses said, a visitor had come to the station's office inquiring about advertising but also showing an unusual interest in Abdi's comings and goings.

In its Journalist Security Guide, published in 2012, CPJ highlighted the sustained risk facing local reporters. "Critical journalists working in repressive or hostile environments often face routine harassment and constant threat," wrote Frank Smyth, the lead author of the guide and CPJ's journalist security adviser. (Disclosure: I'm associate manager in Smyth's private journalist security consultancy and have worked with him on previous CPJ projects.)

In the CPJ Journalist Security Guide, Smyth has this to say about assessing and responding to risk:

Do a broad assessment if you are concerned that your movements, communications, and reporting material are being observed or intercepted by third parties. What are you working on that might be considered sensitive? Who might take offense at your reporting? What surveillance techniques are they likely to employ? Are they more likely to have agents follow you, or are they adept at electronic surveillance? Once you've gauged the level of risk and the likely methods of surveillance, you can consider modifying your activities. That could include varying your professional and personal routines, along with your regular travel routes. ... Be aware of unfamiliar people or vehicles outside your home or office, especially if they appear more than once. Detecting that you are being followed can give you time to reduce risk.

My review of the 2012 cases shows that militant political groups were likely to have been behind nearly half of the killings. Such groups include Al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the Taliban and separatist groups in Pakistan, Government and military officials were suspected in at least three cases, and criminal groups were believed to be responsible in another three. In at least two of the 2012 cases, the evidence points to the use of professional contract killers.

As CPJ documented in its Journalist Security Guide, murdered journalists are frequently threatened prior to their deaths. Nearly half of the 2012 victims had told family or colleagues that they were receiving threats, and at least two had also been the targets of severe physical assault. Brazilian website editor Mario Randolfo Marques Lopes, killed in 2012, had survived a 2011 attack in which a gunman entered his newsroom and shot him multiple times in the head.

CPJ's Smyth says threats have to be taken seriously:

Threats are not only a tactic designed to intimidate critical journalists; they are often followed by actual attacks. Thirty-five percent of journalists murdered in the last two decades were threatened beforehand, according to CPJ research. You must take threats seriously, paying particular heed to those that suggest physical violence. How to respond depends in part on local circumstances. ... Do report threats to your editors and trusted colleagues. Be sure they know details of the threat, including its nature and how and when it was delivered. Some journalists have publicized threats through their news outlets or their own blogs. And do report threats to local and international press freedom groups such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Journalists under threat can also consider a temporary or permanent change in beat. Editors should consult closely with a journalist facing threats and expedite a change in assignment if requested for safety reasons. Some threatened journalists have found that time away from a sensitive beat allowed a hostile situation to lessen in intensity. ... In severe circumstances, journalists may consider relocation either within or outside their country. Threatened journalists should consult with their loved ones to assess potential relocation, and seek help from their news organization and professional groups if relocation is deemed necessary.

The Ortega case is still unsolved, as are the others on the Impunity Index. For the past two years, the Ortega family has petitioned for justice, watching as the gunman and his accomplices implicated two former politicians as the masterminds. Recently, the case has become tangled in pretrial motions that have blocked the arrests of the politicians. A conspirator who turned witness was killed in prison, further damaging the case. "We have been told to manage our expectations at the onset. That we did," Michaella Ortega, Gerardo's daughter, told me. "But it is still impossibly difficult to not be frustrated."

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