Cataloguing death: Or, Journalist Killings, the IPI Death Watch, and Me

[dropcap]I[/dropcap] worked as an intern at the International Press Institute, (IPI), a press freedom advocacy organization in Vienna, as part of the MA in Human Rights program at the University of Vienna during the winter 2015 semester.

IPI keeps track of journalists who are killed in connection with their work or while on assignment each year through its Death Watch project as part of its regular activities. The Death Watch lists each journalist’s name, the date they died, and a brief description of what happened to them. In December, the Death Watch is reviewed and updated to make sure that all persons who should be included on the list that year have been entered.

In December I was tasked with cross-referencing the deaths counted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the International News Safety Institute (INSI) with IPI’s list for 2014. If either list contained names that IPI had not entered on its Death Watch, I was supposed to look into the circumstances surrounding those deaths, and determine whether they should be included in IPI’s count.

IPI’s criteria for inclusion on the list is, generally, to include journalists – and that term includes reporters, photographers, photojournalists, cameramen, and radio and TV producers and presenters – whose deaths can be directly linked with their work, or who were killed while on assignment. It generally does not include ‘media workers’ – for example van drivers or technicians. It also does not generally include ‘citizen journalists,’ like María del Rosario Fuentes, who was killed in Mexico in October by members of a local drug cartel in retaliation for her reporting on their activities over Twitter. ‘Killed on assignment’ might mean journalists who were killed in crossfire while covering conflict situations, or who were killed while traveling somewhere on assignment, but not those who were killed, for example, while travelling to and from the office on a normal work day.

These are a few of the cases from 2014 that I researched in December:

Express News reporter Yaqoob Shehzad was shot dead in Hafizabad, Punjab, on October 5, when unknown gunmen opened indiscriminate fire in the office of his friend. Pakistan is a notoriously dangerous country for journalists, and many of those deaths can be attributed to unidentified gunmen on who speed off on motorcycles. No, do not include him; according to local sources, there is no clear link between the shooting and his work.

Senior reporter for daily newspaper Andhra Prabha MNV Shankar was attacked late on the evening of November 25 when he returned home in Chilakaluripet town, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, by unidentified assailants who beat him with iron rods. He died from his injuries early the next morning in hospital. While there is no clear evidence that the attack was related to his work, his colleagues believe his death was linked to his reporting on the local mafia’s distribution of rationed items through black market channels. Yes, include him.

Dharti TV reporter Jeewan Arain was killed in Khairpur, Pakistan by unidentified gunman on motorcycles while he drove his own motorbike home from work on the evening of November 5. No, do not include him. There is speculation that the killing was tied to a land dispute.

Agence France-Presse senior reporter Sardar Ahmad was killed on March 20, 2014, along with his wife and two of his children in an attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul during a celebration for the Persian New Year. Five other civilians were killed in the attack that the Taliban claimed responsibility for. According to witnesses, Ahmad’s wife begged the gunmen to kill her, instead of her children. They shot her children first, and then killed her. We did not include Sardar Ahmad on the death watch, because the attack is believed to have been linked to the presidential election in April.

Now I am afraid of sounding ghoulish. I had bad dreams the night after I read about the killing of Sardar Ahmad and his family. I think I wanted to put him on the Death Watch, maybe because it made me so sad and I wanted to be able to do something about it. It’s not as if it was necessary to draw attention to his death; at the time, he was written about in a lot of famous publications; The New York Times, The Guardian, Time, The Independent.

It also would not have been appropriate to add him, because his death did not fit our criteria for inclusion. I sometimes struggled with knowing things that were truly awful, but not actually relevant to the task at hand. It was still hard to put them out of my mind. They didn’t happen for any reason I could understand, and it wasn’t in the scope of my work to do or write anything about them. So the deaths that I didn’t enter, I just sort of…knew about.

During December I researched the deaths of between 35-40 journalists, maybe a few more. When I came home at night, after work, I did normal things like make dinner and watch films with my boyfriend. But inevitably I felt this heaviness in my chest.

I hope it doesn’t sound too dramatic to say that the stories of these deaths stayed with me, but they did. I didn’t complain about having the Death Watch as my main task for those few weeks, because I wanted to do it. I felt like it was important, I felt like people need to know that these things happen. The Death Watch exists as a document to bear witness to crimes that often go uninvestigated and unpunished. I think that I also wanted to give the impression that I could handle it, whatever that means, that I wasn’t too weak to do my job. I imagine that if we stay in this line of work, my MA colleagues and I could face worse down the line.

The truth is that I was just sitting in an office in Vienna counting out the number of the dead, writing e-mails, “can you confirm that the death of this person was or was not in connection with his or her work….” researching, running any article that mentioned the names on my list through google translate, trying to piece together what had happened from my desk in the corner.

Once I did confide to a co-worker, after we snuck out for lunch one afternoon, that the project made me feel sad. That sorting through these deaths and their circumstances and deciding who is ‘in’ and who is not is hard. I should mention that no one in the office treats that task lightly; IPI typically favours including those who have been killed under unclear circumstances over not including them on the list. But there are specific criteria for inclusion, and I applied that criteria. You’re allowed a little conjecture, a little benefit of the doubt, but there’s a limit. It can be painful to apply a standard like that. We had to stick to documenting the deaths that fit the scope of the organization’s mission. I couldn’t put everyone on there, even when I wanted to, just to remember them.

Sometimes there are arguments over certain cases, and I found myself asking and being asked weird questions; for example Russian journalist Valery Donskoy left for an assignment in the Ukraine sick with a cold. While he was there he was captured and detained for several days in a freezing barrack. During that imprisonment his cold deteriorated to the double pneumonia he would later die from on October 10, 2014. Was he killed? Should he be on the list? Yes. The circumstances of his imprisonment directly led to the deterioration of his condition, and his death.

What about Jesús Antonio Gamboa Urías, killed after a late-night altercation in a bar in Sinaloa? I argued, maybe a little pathetically, that he did report on the activities of local drug cartels, and that witnesses claimed the dispute that arose between him and the persons in the bar involved drugs; who knows what might have been said between them, late that night in October? Maybe he told them who he was and what he did for a living. But that was too much conjecture, and he was left off the list for this year.

Every morning during my internship I monitored the news for attacks or killings of journalists, or for instances where journalists were imprisoned unjustly, or restrictive new laws that are springing up in countries around the world under the guise of ‘security’ that make reporting on events that are the public interest increasingly dangerous. I looked into deaths that were often shocking in their brutality, more shocking than you might think.

There are many deaths I’ve followed up on where, after a journalist has been killed, officials promise a swift and thorough investigation, and then…nothing. Maybe some of those investigations are initiated, but a few months after those early promises, those stories just sort of trail off into a mist populated by ‘unidentified’ perpetrators. Sometimes suspects are found and tried, but that is often the exception instead of the rule, and even those who are arrested in connection with such crimes are most often not the individuals who masterminded the killings. That’s what we call ‘the culture of impunity’. Journalists are killed because of their work, and most of the time, the people who are responsible for their deaths get away with it.

In our Master’s program we talk a lot about human rights violations, what mechanisms are set up to address them and how, what the shortcomings of those mechanisms might be, and the contradictions that arise in when you consider applying uniform standards in places that are not all alike in terms of available resources, historical context, rule of law, or political will. But we don’t often talk about what it actually feels like to do the work of advocating for others whose rights are restricted or outright violated. Sometimes it’s tiring. Sometimes it really hurts, for reasons you can’t name. It can seep into your dreams, into your thoughts when you ride the train home after work or make coffee on a Saturday morning. And sometimes you feel guilty for indulging yourself too much in that kind of pain, or worse, self-righteousness, when you know that the suffering of the people you are trying to work in solidarity with is so much greater.

I’ve spoken to a few people about this and the typical explanation I’ve received so far has to do with ‘the wall.’ That in some way it is important to build a wall, as it were, in your mind or in your heart somewhere that allows you distance from the work to protect yourself. I don’t know if this is something that develops over time, or with more experience, and I am not sure how it will feel. I would look to people who are more experienced and know more than me to hear about that. As it is I’m not really sure that ‘a wall’ is a great thing for human rights defenders to erect between themselves and other people. I don’t think I want one.

[toggle title=”References” state=”closed” ]

Alexander, Harriet. (23 October 2014). Mexican citizen journalist has her own murder posted on her Twitter account. The Telegraph.

Graham-Harrison, Emma. (21 March 2014) Taliban gunmen kill nine civilians in attack at Kabul’s Serena hotel. The Guardian.

Greedslade, Roy. (6 November 2014) Missing Mexican journalist’s body found riddled with bullets. The Guardian.

Rosenburg, Mathew and Ahmed, Azam. (21 March 2014). Illusion of Safety at Afghan Haven Is Shattered. The New York Times.

Sial, Abbas Zaheer. (5 October 2014). Second journalist gunned down in Hafizabad within a week.

(26 November 2014). Senior Journalist of Andhra Prabha Killed in Attack in Guntur. The Indian Express.

(7 November 2014). In cold blood: Reporter’s murder a mystery to police, family. The Express Tribune.[/toggle]

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