ne cannot be worried enough about the future of journalism. The profession is becoming a riskier business than ever before, and the pursuit of investigative journalism in particular is increasingly producing lethal results.
If we sometimes mourn the death of war correspondents, we understand that in the context of combat risk is sadly part of the job. Bullets cannot read “Press” printed on the vests of reporters. The list of young men and women armed only with a camera and a notebook cut down in the line of duty is a long one, all the more so as members of the press have been allowed increasingly closer to contested hot spots.
Photographer and reporter Gerta Pohorylle, better known as Gerda Taro, Robert Capa’s companion, was among the first of the of the post-World War I age casualties, for it was after that war that journalists, equipped with smaller and more manageable cameras, avidly took to chronicling the lives (and deaths) of troops at war.
She was killed during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, run over by a tank while hanging on the running board of a car transporting wounded soldiers to a field hospital. Capa himself was killed by a mine in 1954, while covering the Vietnam War, then still a French affair. Recently, Pulitzer Prize winner and Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui died accidentally in Afghanistan during a skirmish between government forces and the Taliban, the dark lords of Afghanistan, who later returned his badly mutilated body.
Today, with the humanities in peril (the liberal arts get you nowhere, so the saying goes), this kind of front-line work is coveted among youth. It’s also work that brings with it a hefty dose of adrenaline. For good reason. Corrupt politicians and devious money moguls see journalists as snooping interlopers who might expose their dirty tricks.
They use any means at their disposal to gag reporters or cow them into silence. What was once associated with Latin American dictatorships, or the dark side of the Middle East, is now far more widespread, making reporters all the more invested in digging in, putting such corruption in harm’s way.
Take places such as Egypt, Turkey, and Russia, where journalists who choose to denounce authority figures can end up in jail, victims of fictional charges. In prison, they find like-minded political opponents of the regime. Russia’s two-decade old campaign to silence dissident politicians and journalists is well known. Those who left jail and began challenging Vladimir Putin have at times met with mysterious deaths.
The worst of the dirty work is usually carried out by hired thugs, to cut any links between the regime and the killers.
But things can get even more sinister. Russian journalist Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya dug deep into official corruption and stories of systematic torture in Chechnya. She was shot dead by “unknown assailants” by the elevator in her Moscow apartment building.
Again, just a case of thugs and their criminal enterprises, said the government.
Journalist and writer Jamal Khashoggi, who retreated into exile after publishing reports sharply critical of Saudi rulers, entered the Saudi mission in Istanbul but never left, at least not in one piece. The Saudis said they knew nothing.
In both cases, the West strongly suspected national intelligence agencies had acted to eliminate inconvenient figures.
Fair enough, but can we in the West safely say that the developed world’s democracies are immune to the spirit of such acts? In Malta, journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who openly denounced the involvement of the Maltese government members in the Panama Papers (filled with details of financial scandals), was killed by a bomb placed in her leased Peugeot 106. Though those responsible were caught, tried, and jailed, fellow journalists quietly insisted that senior Maltese officials with alleged ties to the Mafia were complicit in the murder.
The events I mention have all occurred over the last decade or so.
More recently, prominent Dutch journalist Peter R. de Vries, known for investigating the criminal underworld and corruption in the police and the Dutch political world, was fatally shot in central Amsterdam. Then there’s Pegasus Scandal, which suggested Pegasus spyware had been used through social media to bug tens of thousands of journalist-owned mobile phones, mostly in Eastern Europe. This occurred as states such as Hungary and Poland ramped up freedom of information restrictions.
My own country of Italy is probably one of the most perilous place in Western Europe for investigative journalists. Giancarlo Siani, Peppino Impastato (“Mafia is a mountain of shit” was his iconic expression), and Giuseppe Fava are but three names on a long list of intrepid reporters massacred either by the Sicilian Mafia or Neapolitan Camorra for reporting how underworld organizations openly trafficked in drugs, prostitution, and contraband at all levels. Time and again, their reports hinted at (and sometimes exposed) connections between criminal middlemen and local and national politicians. While in Somalia in 1994, RAI (state television) correspondent Ilaria Alpi and her camera operator Miran Hrovatin were ambushed by gunmen who riddled their car with a shower of Kalashnikov bullets. Alpi had been investigating the illegal trafficking of toxic waste from Italy to Somalia. She alleged the Somalis had agreed to take Italy’s poisons in exchange for weapons destined for Somali warlords locked in ongoing local feuds.
Though her murder was yet another attributed to rogue murderers, few in Italy accepted this story, believing instead that Italian secret services acting in conjunction with the incumbent government played some sort of role in the assassination.
Closer to my own home, in the southern Italian region of Salento, Casarano-born journalist Marilù Mastrogiovanni, founder of the local investigative newspaper Il Tacco d’Italia (“The Heel of Italy”) has had a police escort for several years now, after receiving death threats for exposing ties between city representatives and the local underworld.
But violence isn’t the only way of silencing the press. Far more discreet methods are commonplace, and no less effective. Since 1990 or so, Italian mass media has slowly but surely fallen into the hands of tycoons and ownership consortiums on what might be called cordial terms with the Rome government. This extends well beyond the much-publicized control that Silvio Berlusconi exerted over his newspapers and television channels.
Conflict of interest, while of mention, has yet to make any kind of deep cultural impact in Italy. As a result, news is filtered and slanted based on the priorities of those at the top of the media company food chain. In a word, vested interests almost naturally come first.
This is why Italy, though considered a stalwart democracy, has been repeatedly criticized by press watchdog agencies — criticism that continues to this day — long after the Berlusconi era.
And if an Italian journalist ignores the odds against him (or her) and persists in doing their job, the specter of libel rears its head – and libel threats can force both newspapers and individuals to think twice. Italian politicians are masters at using trumped up libel charges to put journalists on the defensive.
The threat of big-sum defamation and libel suits are more effective in the Latin world, in which such legal probes can take years if not decades, pushing out of the limelight whatever a journalist might have discovered.
Such suits have been known to undermine the work of reporters who have uncovered proof of wrongdoing. No matter: they’re up against the libel wall.
And even if a reporter wins a libel case, the damage has been done, since by then the journalist is damaged goods in terms of public opinion.
A bill intended to diminish such malicious prosecution exists but has been put off for decades. That’s no surprise because its wording would impose stiff penalties on plaintiffs whose libel charges turn out to be frivolous.
A draft of this bill bides its time somewhere in the offices of the Italian parliament, its progress thwarted mostly by those parties whose members play the libel card when the press gets too close to truths better left unsaid. It’s an old story in Italy and elsewhere.
It’s no surprise that those who most oppose malicious prosecution legislation are those most mentioned in investigative probes regarding corruption or alleged dalliance with the underworld.
That Italy is in need of judiciary reform is an understatement. It’s also in need of electoral reform, but that, too, is stalled.
No offense to Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s cabinet, but in terms of reform, he was a loser from the start. His government is supported by what amounts to a national salvation coalition, and such coalitions rarely if ever get to the point. They’re too watered down to do so. And the COVID-19 crisis has only slowed things down further, at least with regard to substantial legislative change.
For now, journalists are and will remain in the crosshairs. They can push ahead with their reporting and suggestions of illicit activities, but they will continue to do so at their own (often grave) risk.