Paris attack highlights broader attempt to silence media

by

Bloomberg

The attack on journalists in Paris is not an isolated incident but part of a broader attempt to muzzle the press. At least 158 reporters and photographers have been killed while doing their jobs since 2011, the worst three-year period on record.

“There is a global battle over the freedom of expression,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been tracking press killings since 1992. “Journalists are unquestionably under greater threat than ever.”

Newspapers and magazines across Europe and the Middle East are bracing for violence in the aftermath of the shooting at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly, that left 12 dead. Other newspapers in Paris have stepped up security, as did Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen, the publisher of controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in 2005. In Madrid, the offices of the El Pais newspaper were evacuated after security guards detected a suspicious package. The Financial Times said it was raising security levels.

“After a terrible year in 2014, it’s a terrible start for press freedom in the world,” said Vincent Peyregne, chief executive officer of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, based in Paris.

While the attacks in Paris were unusual because the victims were satirists, they were also typical because they were murdered for their work, Simon said.

“It is journalistic entities that challenge power structures in their societies that are attacked,” Simon said. The shooting “conforms to that form of attack, but in this case it happened in Paris, so it was shocking.”

If the intent of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was to intimidate, it may have succeeded, said William Horsley, the international director for the Center for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield in the U.K.

Other publications may hesitate before being as provocative as Charlie Hebdo, Horsley said. “This attack shows how vulnerable an organization is that dares defy specific threats. It could happen again at any time.”

After Jyllands-Posten drew threats for publishing the cartoons of Muhammed in 2005, newspapers in the U.K. refused to reprint them, Horsley said.

Kurt Westergaard, who drew one of the 12 cartoons, is still under police protection and was attacked by an axe-wielding assailant in 2010.

JP/Politikens Hus, which owns Jyllands-Posten, is stepping up safety procedures at its offices and police have increased patrolling in and around the buildings, broadcaster DR reported, citing an email distributed among the newspaper’s employees.

In Germany, there is a history of violence against the press. The Hamburg headquarters of Axel Springer SE, which publishes newspapers including Bild — the country’s biggest daily — and Die Welt, was bombed in 1972 by Red Army Faction terrorists, injuring 17.

Journalists face threats from religious fanatics, armed forces and organized crime.

In Italy, about six journalists live under police protection because of threats from groups like the Mafia, said Lirio Abbate, who is one of them. Abbate, a reporter with l’Espresso magazine, travels in an armored car and is protected 24 hours a day by five police officers, he said.

The Paris attack “makes us really see how at risk reporters are,” Abbate said Wednesday. “It’s dismal when these things happen. It brings it all back. As a reader, I knew the people who died today. Before it was in Italy that these things happened. Nowadays it’s also elsewhere.”

In February, Kevin Lau, the editor of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper was ambushed and slashed with a meat cleaver, leaving him in critical condition. The attack was believed to be an effort to intimidate him and influence coverage. Thousands of people took to the streets to show support for press freedom.

At least eight journalists in Latin America were killed for doing their jobs last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Paraguayan reporter Pablo Medina Velazquez died after being shot four times in the face and chest in October near the village of Villa Ygatimi after writing stories about the alleged use of toxic pesticides on farmland. His brother, a radio journalist, was killed in 2001 after denouncing political corruption in the South American country, the CPJ said.

Four journalists were killed in the Gaza Strip last year during the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. Among them was Simone Camilli, an Italian video journalist working for the Associated Press, who died in an explosion August 13 while accompanying police sappers trying to neutralize missiles left from Israeli airstrikes.

In Israel, most editors declined to discuss their precautions, saying that would amount to an invitation to attack the office. At this point, “it’s safer to be a journalist in Israel than in Paris,” said David Brinn, managing editor of the Jerusalem Post.

Ouest France, a regional newspaper in Rennes, France, already had security in place, said Francois-Xavier Lefranc, editor-in-chief.

“The idea is not to yield to panic and to take the measure of what happened,” Lefranc said. “Democracy is hurt in its heart and we must not yield to provocation and forces that are expressing themselves in this way.”