Photo: Colombian journalists gather in front of Ecuador’s embassy to protest against the murder of the media team, holding signs reading “We Are Missing Three” in Spanish. Reuters.
On April 13, a team of three Ecuadorian journalists was confirmed dead on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. They were reporting on the activities of rebel narco groups, who generally don’t appreciate being scrutinized, and were kidnapped on March 26 by the Oliver Sinisterra Front. The International Committee of the Red Cross retrieved the bodies, responding to a request for assistance from both Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities.
Across Ecuador, citizens held vigils and criticized the government for its handling of the situation. Journalists gathered in front of the presidential palace in Quito every day following the kidnapping, chanting “We’re missing three! We want them back alive!” and demanding the government take action to retrieve them. The day after the deaths were confirmed, the protesters changed their shouts to “You did nothing!”
Media actors such as Colombia’s Foundation for Press Liberty have denounced the passivity of the Colombian and Ecuadorian government in protecting the lives of the reporters. Major news outlets held blackouts as a sign of mourning for their colleagues and journalists of Cartagena collected at a martyrs’ monument to protest the murders. Ronald Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Bolivar Journalists Association, reminds “everyone that our profession is a neutral one that does not take sides, so we demand that we be excluded from the armed conflict, and we reiterate to the governments of Colombia and Ecuador that they are responsible for our safety in practicing our profession.” The 2017 Freedom House report on Ecuador states that the government has “increasingly cracked down on social media and other internet activity in recent years” and that officials monitor Twitter for accounts critical of the Correa administration.
The Colombian government claims Oliver Sinisterra Front is a splinter group of FARC, a former rebel group which signed an historic peace agreement and transitioned into a political party, although currently it no longer has a connection to the political party. Oliver Sinisterra Front, in turn, blames the Ecuadorian government for the deaths, saying it “did not want to save the lives of the three detained” and that the military operations nearby were the reason the captives died. Discouragingly, the Ecuadorian government received a video on April 18 from Oliver Sinisterra Front showing two more Ecuadorians have been kidnapped.
The media is often in one of two positions: acting as a pillar of support for the government/powerful interests, or as whistleblowers. Journalists not under the thumb of any government are often expected to challenge authority and the status quo. They reveal truths that those in power might prefer to be left in the dark, and hold them accountable.
The trend of violence and threats facing reporters is spread across the globe, with journalists targeted and killed in Slovakia, India, Yemen, and other Latin American countries just in 2018, according to Reporters Without Borders.
April 12, In the Russian city Yekaterinburg, a journalist fell off his balcony and died soon after in the hospital. There is some debate over the circumstances surrounding his death: some proclaim it suicide, others suspect foul play. Neither of those theories speaks to a secure environment for the reporter. Leonid Volkov, an acquaintance of the dead journalist, describes the conditions in Russia for principled journalists as so devoid of any prospects that it “forc[es] them to choose between honor and a piece of bread every day.”
A Maltese journalist who had made a habit of investigating and exposing corruption and money-laundering schemes tied to politicians was killed last fall when her car exploded outside of her home on the island of Malta. She quickly became something of a martyr, her violent death and bold, corruption-exposing journalism catching the attention of many. News organizations and private journalists around the globe have since pledged to take up and carry on her work, forming the Forbidden Stories project.
These cases of murder and violence are extremes, but journalists face various injustices and threats on a daily basis. They are subjected to harassment from governments, bloggers are put under surveillance, and some are arbitrarily barred from free movement within countries. There has been a decline in free press globally over the last 15 years, reaching its lowest point in 2016 while unprecedented levels of threats to journalists and media outlets were recorded in “major democracies,” and authoritarian states looked to control the media even beyond their borders. One of the most common penalties imposed on journalists is imprisonment. Many countries use old or vague laws to target media, like in Myanmar where two journalists currently are being charged with violating the Official Secrets Act. Others use situations of social unrest as a pretext to exercise their power and crack down on media.
And as social movements demand more clarity, greater transparency, the knowledge has to be disseminated some way— usually through traditional media channels. When we rely on journalists to be on the front lines of disclosing information to the public, and revealing secrets that ought to be shared, we must also support the journalists when they are in danger. Demands for high-risk actions should not be the only thing we have to offer. We must take steps to ensure the safety of journalists and support their endeavors. In the words of Bratislava archbishop Stanislav Zvolensky: “An attack on a journalist is also an attack on the freedom of our country, we must not allow it.”