Perhaps the most unusual thing about the slayings of 10 journalists in Paris on Wednesday was that they occurred in Paris. Journalists are hunted and attacked regularly, though almost never in cosmopolitan Western capitals where free speech is a given.
Being a reporter may not be as dangerous as being a soldier, police officer, firefighter or coal miner — although it’s hard to know for sure, given uncertainty over how many people actually are journalists. But in many places, even outside war zones, carrying a notebook or a camera is a life-threatening proposition.
Journalists are killed for myriad reasons: for reporting about official corruption or organized crime, or simply for saying something unpopular. Sometimes, merely associating with the wrong sources can get a reporter killed.
●In Paraguay, radio host Edgar Pantaleón Fernández Fleitas was shot and killed in the northern city of Concepcion in June after he went on the air and accused local officials of taking bribes.
●In Syria, one of the worst places to be a journalist, gunmen killed local radio reporter Mohammed al-Qasim in September while he was on assignment interviewing a rebel military leader, according to the International Press Institute.
●In Pakistan in April, TV anchor Hamid Mir — the target of Taliban threats for his coverage of wounded schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai — was shot three times as he left the airport in Karachi. He survived.
In all, some 60 journalists were killed on the job worldwide in 2014, and 70 in 2013, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization based in New York. The group says the past three years have been the worst since it began compiling figures on journalists’ deaths in 1992.
Even that grim tally might understate the problem: The organization is still investigating 18 reporters’ deaths in 2014 to determine whether they were work-related.
The striking thing about these fatalities is that they mostly were not the result of accidents or falling bombs and errant crossfire in war zones. In two-thirds of the cases, journalists died the way those killed at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo did Wednesday: They were targeted because they were journalists.
“These are murders, not accidents,” Joel Simon, the CPJ’s executive director, said in an interview. “Journalists die because they wrote or broadcast something that offended powerful figures in a particular society.”
The Charlie Hebdo killings captured worldwide attention because of their appalling brazenness, the ghastly death toll and the unusual setting. But a far more deadly attack on reporters is less known.
In 2009, a militia loyal to the provincial governor and ruling family on Mindanao in the Philippines rounded up a convoy of journalists and others as they accompanied members of a political party seeking to register a rival gubernatorial candidate for an upcoming election. The subsequent massacre in Maguidanao province left 57 dead, at least 32 of them journalists and related employees, according to the CPJ.
The attack was the deadliest involving journalists, and it might still be resonating years later. The CPJ documented the killing of one state witness to the crime and the wounding of another in November. The murder victim, Dennix Sakal, was the fourth witness killed since court proceedings began in 2010 — thus far without a single conviction.
The Maguidanao massacre points to two other aspects of journalists’ deaths: Most victims are locals. And most perpetrators get away with their crimes.
Despite such international horrors as the beheading of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff by Islamic State militants last year in Syria, most of the 60 reporters who have been killed or are missing in Syria since 2012 are Syrians.
Overall, 9 in 10 reporters who died on the job last year were killed in their native countries, the CPJ said.
Some of this toll reflects a pullback of resources by large Western news organizations, according to Simon. Cash-strapped media companies are increasingly relying on local journalists and freelancers to cover conflict zones rather than sending experienced reporters from the home office, he said.
“If [a Western journalist] spotted trouble before, he could simply leave and go back home,” Simon said. “You can’t do that if you’re already in your home country.”
The CPJ maintains an “impunity index” of how often journalists’ deaths go unpunished. Although the figures vary by nation, about 90 percent of journalist deaths are never prosecuted. Iraq has been the worst offender for six years running, with a 100 percent impunity rate.
Several observers suggest that the death rate for journalists has been rising as the tools to bypass the traditional media have developed apace. In short, journalists are more expendable.
“People in conflict zones used to consider reporters as something like the Red Cross or Red Crescent Society — neutral noncombatants,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, the educational arm of the Newseum in Washington.
Warring factions “needed reporters to get their story out,” he said. “If no one reported their side of the story, it didn’t get out.”
No longer, he said. Militant and terrorist groups are as adept at using social media as the savviest teenager. Rather than conduits for spreading the word, he said, reporters have become mere bargaining chips to be ransomed for cash — or worse. “Now,” Policinski said, “having a journalist [around] is intrusive.”
The Newseum maintains a memorial to journalists killed around the world since the 1800s while in the act of reporting. It includes 2,200 names and is by no means complete.
“I think we have to thank God that there are still people with the courage to stand up and report, despite the dangers of the job,” Policinski said. “It’s awe-inspiring that there are still people who will go into conflict zones and report. People are always critical of the news media, but there hasn’t been enough recognition for the people who lay their lives on the line to bring back a story or to stand up for freedom of expression.”
Maybe, he said, the horrors of Paris this week will remind the world of that.