THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Press freedom is a vital component of any democracy, with journalists playing an important role in the face of massive disinformation.
But time and again, we see the cost of journalists’ quest for truth, especially in countries where governments and heads of state see them as adversaries.
At least 2,176 journalists and media workers were killed between 1992 and 2022, according to the latest data collated by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), with 57 killings occurring in the past 10 months alone.
These numbers do not cover the wider range of attacks journalists are subjected to, which my organization Rappler – a small newsroom based in the Philippines – is all too familiar with.
I am Jodesz Gavilan, a Filipino journalist working for Rappler since 2014. I have covered the bloody war on drugs of former president Rodrigo Duterte, the challenges faced by families of victims, and the impact of Duterte’s violent policies on human rights and vulnerable communities.
Rappler’s critical reporting has earned the ire of the government. There are at least seven active cases so far pending in court, including those against the company, its CEO Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, directors, and a former researcher.
When I started working as a journalist in 2014, I didn’t know the violence would be this high and that I would be pouring over gigabytes worth of documents to spot trends in killings. The images have seeped through my subconscious, replacing my dreams with nightmares.
What Rappler is currently experiencing reflects a bigger trend when it comes to the state of press freedom in the Philippines. ABS-CBN, one of the biggest broadcasting companies, was shut down and refused a franchise renewal upon the whims of the former president.
Meanwhile, Filipino media workers continue to get killed just for doing their jobs. The National Union of Journalists in the Philippines has documented at least 197 media killings since 1986. Two were killed since the beginning of the new administration of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
The Philippines is not the only country facing press freedom issues. It has become a cruel global trend that must be stopped in its track for the sake of the truth and justice. Still, many journalists are continuing to fight despite challenges, including those that threaten their lives. These are some of their stories.
Responsibility to families in Mexico
Félix Márquez is a photojournalist from Veracruz, Mexico. He has been covering human rights issues, including the violent war against drug trafficking, migration, and children’s rights, in his home country and Latin America for about 15 years.
Félix first started taking photos in the lifestyle sphere, covering concerts and popular events during his early years as a photographer. But in the background, violent incidents were happening in his city and country.
“Shooting attacks, bombing threats, killings of people were all around me,” he recalled. “I see all these things in my city and I wanted to help create at least a little change in my community as a journalist.”
And so he did. Since then, Félix has been on the frontlines of uncovering massive human rights violations in his country, including widespread enforced disappearances of men and women, and their families’ quest for justice.
The dangers of his work are not lost on Félix, especially as Mexico has been consistently tagged as one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist. CPJ data shows that at least 151 journalists and media workers were killed in Mexico between 1992 and 2022. In 2022 alone, 13 had died.
He knows it all too well, having been on the frontlines. He had friends and colleagues who were killed because of their jobs, while he himself had experienced threats and harassment.
In 2013, Félix was publicly identified and threatened to be detained by police for taking photos. A year later, unidentified individuals broke into his house and stole his computers and cellphones that not only contained his work but also personal information.
But why does he continue? Félix said it is his “responsibility” to the families and survivors of violence, who see him as someone who can help.
“I don’t only take photos but I also spend time with the mothers and the families, share our experiences, emotions, because this relationship is not only professional, but also more of friendships,” Félix said.
“Maybe I won’t make a big change in my community, but at that moment, in the houses of the mothers, I was there, hearing their stories, and for them, that’s already a big deal,” he added.
Bringing change to Congo
Honneur-David Safari believes that his becoming a journalist was all by chance. He started university in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to become a lawyer upon the wishes of his parents, but he also started writing for a youth magazine.
In 2008, he became a journalist and has since covered human rights, including the welfare of minorities and young people. Honneur-David has also been involved in journalism work that promotes democratic values and fighting bad governance in his country.
“Our work on governance is about reaching young people so that they understand that it is time for change and that it is up to them to act,” Honneur-David said.
But a journalist working in the DRC has to face the inevitable deluges of challenges, from the lack of transparency in the government to the issue of one’s safety. CPJ documented at least 38 journalists and media workers slain in the country between 1992 and 2022.
According to Honneur-David, in the DRC, “everything is done to make you accept to move on or you die.”
“To choose to be a journalist in the Congo is to choose to live through the ordeal [because] the threats come from everywhere: armed bandits, state agents involved in dirty tricks, and political authorities who use the police or the justice system to silence you,” Honneur-David said.
But for Honneur-David, the issues that stem from financial challenges are perhaps the biggest he has faced in his career as a journalist. Media organizations, after all, still need money to operate. And in the DRC, where the state is not afraid to go after media supporters, drumming up financial support poses a huge challenge.
“Staying independent in this context is a real feat, as it is seen as a threat to selfish interests,” he said.
“The donors who subsidize the media cannot do it for everyone, and that is understandable, and some are even afraid to go with you to avoid the wrath of certain state officials,” he added.
Still, Honneur-David is firm in his decision to continue working as a journalist despite the challenges. He sees his profession as a “moral and patriotic obligation” to the DRC – his and his family’s only country.
“I am convinced that being a member of the press is a very noble profession, and like the doctor, the independent journalist can save lives,” he said.
“So I believe that the situation will change and I would like to be part of that, and to give up would be cowardly and it is not the image I want to give to my sons,” Honneur-David added.
A humanitarian profession
Farah* (not her real name) is a journalist from the Middle East who writes about women’s rights issues and the challenges women face. But her first foray into journalism began a decade ago, when she started doing stories on the demonstrations in her home city at the height of the Arab Spring movement.
In 2018, Farah established an online news site that focuses on human rights and the important role of civil society in protecting and upholding these rights.
“I found it the appropriate way to express myself, talk about my ideas and my aspirations, and it is the best way to show the truth and reflect the voices of others,” Farah said.
But even if working as a journalist makes Farah feel “fine and healthy,” she admits that there are still many challenges, especially on account of her being a woman. There were instances of hate and defamation that targeted not just her work but also her being an individual.
Still, Farah perseveres in the face of these problems. She called her work a “humanitarian profession that seeks to help others.”
“I am confident that what I write today will be a witness to this difficult stage we are living in [my country]. My role is important in reminding civilians and women of rights and freedoms and spreading awareness to build a society that understands its rights and value as a human being,” she said.
Support needed for journalists
Félix, Honneur-David, Farah, and I are current guests of Shelter City, a project by human rights organization Justice & Peace Netherlands that provides temporary relocation to human rights defenders at risk in their home countries. The program aims to give them a safe space to reenergize, as well as receive tailor-made support to improve their work.
The initiative recognizes the importance of journalists and their safety, with Justice & Peace providing additional spaces per year to journalists at risk to continue to work more safely, as well as raising awareness to encourage others to stand side by side with other journalists, too.
“Without [journalists’] courage to investigate, document, and report on important issues such as human rights violations or corruption, we all would not have access to reliable and independent information for us to make decisions and ensure justice. This work is extremely necessary for ensuring positive change and for free and just societies,” the organization said.
“What is enormously concerning, however, and something we are seeing in all corners of the world,. is that the safety of journalists is at extreme risk. They are facing levels of attacks at an unprecedented level by multiple actors, from government authorities to corporate companies and other groups,” Justice & Peace added.
Shelter City has given me, a journalist of almost nine years, a chance to step back and assess everything that has happened not just to my country but also to me. It has provided not just a platform but also a variety of options on how to go through this self-reflection space.
For Honneur-David, the opportunity has helped him find a certain balance while meeting a lot of people who can give him support.
But there is still much work to be done, especially as journalists face record-high intensity of attacks in various forms, especially in countries where democracies are at peril.
In Mexico, Félix said they bank on collective organizations and projects such as Mirar Distinto Festival or the Frontline Freelance Mexico that also provide safe spaces made by journalists for journalists. But he believes the international community can do a lot more for press freedom in his country, including providing resources for programs that benefit the media.
As we mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on Wednesday, November 2, it is high time to continue working toward holistic support for media workers to ensure the independence and safety of the global free press.
“Society must understand that when a journalist is attacked in any part of the world, in reality, the ultimate goal is not to report on the issues that matter in your community, city or country, and that the attack is directly towards you,” Félix said.
“Journalists are part of the body that is civil society, and one does not abandon a part of one’s body and hope to be in good health,” Honneur-David said. – Rappler.com
This article is republished with permission from the Justice & Peace Netherlands for the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.
The author, Rappler human rights journalist Jodesz Gavilan, is currently participating in Justice & Peace Netherlands’ Shelter City program.