Don’t Kill the Messenger

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Ending Impunity Against Journalists

Don’t Kill the Messenger

On Sept. 3, attackers set fire to the car of Yulia Latynina, a columnist for Novaya Gazeta and host of a weekly radio show in Russia. On Oct. 16, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a journalist reporting on corruption in Malta as part of the Panama Papers investigation, was killed in a car bomb. On Oct. 24, riot police officers beat up three journalists and damaged their equipment while they were covering protests at a courthouse in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Variations on the phrase “don’t kill the messenger” can be found in literature dating back to Plutarch, the Greek biographer, conveying the idea that official purveyors of unwanted or bad news should be protected from abuse, insult and injury. Today, these “messengers” work to gather and distribute news and information, monitoring, analyzing and often critiquing those in positions of authority. Protecting journalists and media practitioners against violence from those who may want to censor them is a core tenet of freedom of expression.

For over nine months, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Slidstvo.Info conducted their own investigation into the murder and police probe of Pavel Sheremet, as documented by the video “Killing Pavel.” / OCCRP

For over nine months, reporters from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Slidstvo.Info conducted their own investigation into the murder and police probe of Pavel Sheremet, as documented by the video “Killing Pavel.” (OCCRP)

By the Numbers

Since 1992, more than 800 journalists have been murdered around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which runs the Global Campaign Against Impunity. Of those cases, 86 percent were killed with impunity, meaning no convictions have been obtained.

In Russia, which ranks in the top 10 of CPJ’s list, the attack on Latynina is just the latest in a series of assaults and threats against Russian journalists and opposition figures that have not resulted in formal charges.

In Ukraine, the murder of prominent investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet remains unsolved more than a year later, in spite of a high-profile documentary and investigation into his case by USAID grantee the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and

In Serbia, 150 news outlets and advocacy groups organized a collective blackout last month to draw attention to the dire state of media freedom in the country. Among 13 recommendations shared with Serbia’s prime minister this week was a call on the government to urgently resolve all attacks on journalists and threats to their safety and to institute proceedings against the perpetrators.

IREX on-camera training for journalists in Serbia. / USAID

IREX on-camera training for journalists in Serbia. (USAID)

Breaking the Cycle

The problem of violence against journalists lacks an easy solution. The threats are diverse, ranging from armed conflict and ethnic violence to politically motivated and organized crime. Civil society organizations worldwide have responded through careful monitoring, aggressive advocacy efforts and training courses, often with the support of donors like USAID.

USAID has prioritized support to independent media in Europe and Eurasia since beginning work there in 1992. Our programs focus both on the supply and demand sides of news and information, as well as advocating for greater press freedom. Programming to address digital, legal and physical security is woven throughout nearly all of our activities.

Investigative reporters play a frontline role in holding those in power accountable, and can be particularly vulnerable to attacks. Due to the fact that crime and corruption do not respect borders, developing partnerships and expanding networks across borders is critical for keeping these individuals safe. Programs such as the Regional Investigative Journalism Network help shield reporters from attack by making it more difficult for criminals to pinpoint those who have exposed their wrongdoings, and by shedding more light on retaliation against the press from hostile governments.

In Ukraine, USAID’s U-Media Project has collaborated with more than 500 independent media outlets to ensure that journalists operate safely and protect their data in conflict areas in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, while conducting professional, conflict-sensitive reporting on the fighting and occupation. USAID also supports the local organization Institute of Mass Information, which monitors violations of journalists’ rights.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, USAID mission works with the Centre for Civil Society Promotion to provide legal representation for media organizations and journalists targeted by politically-motivated defamation lawsuits. And in Moldova, USAID is helping to create a media sector that is more resilient to political and financial pressures.

Justice for Journalists

Attacks, intimidation, political repression and imprisonment are realities for journalists engaged in reporting the truth, and impunity for crimes against journalists further perpetuates this cycle of violence. Though there is a growing awareness, much remains to be done to address its negative, reverberating effects on freedom of expression.

Donors, policymakers, advocacy organizations, and civil society organizations must continue to exert pressure on those involved in both soft and hard forms of censorship to ensure the continuation of open, public debate and the free flow of information.

Journalists are not soldiers and their cameras and pens are not weapons; they shouldn’t need to fear the phrase “Don’t kill the messenger.”

About the Author: Shannon Maguire is a Media Advisor with USAID’s Bureau for Europe and Eurasia promoting independent media development. Follow @USAIDEurope.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation publication on