There is a general consensus that free, independent and diverse media are essential for a functioning, healthy democracy. We are all now accustomed to have access to many sources of information at the tip of our fingers. Nevertheless, we also frequently forget that this is the outcome of difficult and often risky work by thousands upon thousands of dedicated people who work in the media, who on many occasions literally risk their lives to supply such information. Figures from the Committee to Protect Journalists reveal that thus far in 2017, 42 journalists and other media workers have been killed for “confirmed motives,” and a further 14 for “unconfirmed motives.”
In the past quarter-century, 1,262 journalists have been killed, often in a clear attempt to prevent them from fulfilling their duty. A large proportion of such victims were war correspondents, but not exclusively; those who covered politics, human rights, corruption and even sport and culture also made it on to the hit list. Danger zones for journalists can be found all over the world, and include Iraq, Syria, Mexico, Russia and the Philippines. And to be sure, the physical elimination of journalists is not the only form of silencing them; imprisonment, censorship and delegitimization are others.
The distinctive role of the media in society is to inform the public on an array of issues that are of interest to them and that affect their lives. There is a logical assumption that a well informed public is one that can make better choices. In a globalized world where social, economic, political and security issues continue to grow in complexity, the need for high quality analysis and investigative journalism is essential in provoking public debate and scrutinizing government.
The case of Daphne Caruana Galizia is a textbook example of harassing a journalist for a prolonged period of time in an attempt to intimidate her into silence. In her long career in reporting and blogging she exposed cronyism, corruption and organised crime. She was not afraid to take on politicians from all quarters of Maltese politics; she revealed how banks were aiding money laundering and tax evasion, and how online gaming companies were being taken over by the Mafia and drug smugglers. Most recently she had been investigating Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and some of his lieutenants, alleging the sale of Maltese passports to wealthy Russians and large payments from the government of Azerbaijan.
The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia has exposed not only the vulnerability of journalists who are armed with no more than their pen and the truth, but also how valuable they are to society.
In the past her house has been set on fire, and those who felt threatened by her have tried to ruin her financially. That her life has been cut short in such a cowardly manner is tragic testimony to her dedication and courage in the face of adversity. But by no stretch of the imagination is hers an isolated case. For example, Anna Politkovskaya, who was highly critical of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and his country’s behaviour in Chechnya, was shot in the lobby of her Moscow apartment block. The gruesome beheading of Daniel Pearl by Al-Qaeda, and of James Foley and Steven Sotloff as posted on YouTube, will always remain in the collective memory of attempts to deter reporters from exposing war crimes.
The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia has exposed not only the vulnerability of journalists who are armed with no more than their pen and the truth, but also how valuable they are to society. There is no free society without freedom of speech and expression. If journalism is to serve society at home and abroad it has to work free from physical and verbal abuse. But Galizia’s death has also sent a powerful message that quality journalism instils fear among those who are corrupt, and abuse power at the expense of ordinary citizens and the good of their country. Not only for the sake of journalists themselves, but also for the good of their societies as a whole, those who work in the media should be protected by the legal system and those who enforce it.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg