Journalists dying for the story

In the past year, 88 journalists throughout the world have been killed for their work.

Over the past decade, more than 750 journalists and media employees have been murdered worldwide, says a report by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, presented this week at the World Newspaper Congress and World Editors Forum in Hyderabad, India.

This annual summit of the global press began with a moment of silence for the Nov. 23 massacre of a reported 30 journalists in the Philippines – the deadliest single attack on journalists in history.

I expect these deaths will be top of mind for many Canadian journalists at the International Press Freedom Awards in Toronto next Wednesday night. These important awards, bestowed annually by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, celebrate journalism as an act of courage.

At a time when North American journalists are increasingly fearful of losing their jobs to the unprecedented structural upheaval of the media industry, the CJFE press freedom awards honour journalists who face down fears of losing their lives to tell their stories.

Journalist Carol Off, chair of the CJFE awards committee, cites the honourees’ “steadfast devotion to journalistic integrity and freedom of the press.

“The journalists and the news outlet that we are honouring this year have defiantly stood their ground to report the news despite great personal risk, the threat of persecution and daunting circumstances.”

This year’s award winners are Iranian editor Jila Baniyaghoub and the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Canadian journalist Terry Gould, author of Murder Without Borders: Dying for the Story in the World’s Most Dangerous Places, is also being honoured for his extraordinary commitment to bringing public attention to the issue of impunity in the murder of journalists.

Baniyaghoub has been beaten, arrested and imprisoned many times for her work and defiance of censorship attempts. Novaya Gazeta, which frequently exposes corruption and human rights abuses in Russia, has gained international attention due to the murders of four of its staff members.

When journalists die for their stories, justice is rarely ever done. In the vast majority of cases, those who murder journalists are never arrested, prosecuted or punished for their crimes.

Gould spent four years exploring this “culture of impunity” and painstakingly piecing together the lives of seven local journalists murdered for their work in five of the most dangerous countries for journalists, including Russia and the Philippines.

His recently released book is an inspiring exploration of the hearts and minds of those murdered journalists. “I was trying to answer the question: What makes a journalist stay on the story after being threatened with death?” the Vancouver-based writer and award-winning investigative reporter told me this week.

“I did not conduct murder investigations so much as life investigations.”

For Gould, the quest to understand those journalists who are willing to die for their stories was also a psychological journey into questions of good and evil, a search for the heart of goodness of journalism itself. At Wednesday’s award ceremony, he will talk about the “psychology of sacrifice” that drove those journalists to “live and die for a higher purpose.

“These journalists did not do it for the money; most made a few hundred dollars a month,” he said. “The story came first over any recompense.

“They were all convinced that the outcome of history could be transformed by their reporting – they reached the point where publishing the truth was their only option.”

Each of the murdered journalists Gould profiled was driven by passion and the belief that those who caused suffering had to be stopped. All were motivated by the conviction that the powerful had to be kept from oppressing the weak

Almost all had predicted their own death.

“They all concluded that in order to advance their work they had to accept death as a consequence of their work,” Gould said.

Gould’s compelling book has been widely lauded for its journalistic excellence: meticulous reporting and compassionate storytelling. Most of all, it’s a work that connects journalists to our highest ideals.

As Joel Simon, executive director of the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, wrote in his review: “In an age when journalism is threatened by economic collapse and deep public cynicism, Gould’s book reminds us that journalism can be beautiful and meaningful, and that its power to combat injustice is so great that some journalists around the world are willing to give their lives to tell the truth.”

It’s a sad reality that far too many journalists around the globe have been killed for their work. But the fact that some courageous and committed journalists are willing to die for their stories is indeed a story worth telling.

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