February 2015


Press under fire

By Rafael Epstein
The ‘Charlie Hebdo’ massacre is the latest in a long line of attacks on journalists

The shards of what had been massive plate glass windows hung over the burnt-out shell of the car dealership in Dili. Shocked faces watched as we drove from the almost deserted airport and surveyed the wrecked shops and ruined shacks. It was 1999, in the wake of the violence that came with East Timor’s independence vote, and we were protected by the Australian Army. I was completely unafraid, confronting a city that had been ransacked and now had no electricity, no fresh food and no order.

Perhaps I should have been fearful. Just days before my arrival, an Indonesian soldier on Dili’s outskirts had killed the Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes, a witness to the widespread violence, and it seemed to be part of a new global trend: the bad guys were targeting the media. Journalists had been murdered not long before in the Balkans, but it was the first time a foreign journalist had been killed in Indonesia since the Balibo Five and Roger East in 1975.

It’s odd to me now that it simply seemed like the inevitable risk that came with the romance of being a foreign correspondent. Things changed in 2001, when Al Qaeda members in Pakistan killed with glee the Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl, who had been kidnapped by militants while chasing an exclusive interview. The executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff in Syria last year are logical extensions of the twisted Islamic fundamentalist ideology that led to Pearl’s murder.

So what happened in Paris in the offices of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo is both new and not new. It feels dramatically different. Where it happened, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, may be familiar even to many who have never been to France. It’s an area of inner urban gentrification, where you can sip artisanal beer and single-origin coffee while revelling in the banal globalisation of hipster taste.

The victims were not grizzled veterans of war zones nor 20-somethings trying to make a name for themselves in a dangerous place. Those who were shot and killed at their editorial meeting, in their comfortable but run-down offices, were familiar cultural figures on French radio and TV, renowned for their work in a magazine many hadn’t bought in years.

Charlie Hebdo deliberately stuck its offensive and cartoonish pen into the sensitive beehive of Islam, even if others were also the target of its satire. That doesn’t excuse the brutal killings, nor justify them, but Charlie Hebdo was different – satire was its stock in trade. And France itself is unique. Few countries have such a rich cultural tradition based so explicitly on the revolutionary ideals of liberty and free speech, and France also has more Muslims per capita than any other nation in Western Europe.

Nevertheless, the killings at Charlie Hebdo are true to the sentiment expressed by Peter Greste, the Australian incarcerated last year in Egypt. “Journalists are no longer on the frontlines; we are the frontlines,” he said.

“In the 13 years I’ve been covering wars I’ve watched the sense of protection drop away,” writes Mitch Prothero, in an email to me from his base in northern Iraq, where he works for the American McClatchy Company newspapers. “Now, frankly, I’ve considered myself a target for years.”

Being a journalist in Mexico, Russia or Latin American countries like Guatemala has for a long time meant being on that frontline, as a target of brutal state repression or simple revenge killing. In the US in the 1990s, a number of journalists were killed for exposing the drug trade and corruption.

And for those in conflict zones, jihadi groups are not the only threat. The Syrian regime has held freelance reporter Austin Tice, a former US Marine, for more than two years. The Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin was almost certainly killed by those taking their orders from Damascus. There are long, sobering lists of Arab journalists killed in Syria and Iraq, by government forces and others.

Still, for the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the magazine attack, there was clearly a line from Daniel Pearl to the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

It’s too easy to obscure the causes, or to blame immigration or multiculturalism, or to declare this a “Muslim” problem. They’re all worthy of examination, and some are part of the problem, but no single issue explains it all.

There are perhaps more important questions than whether or not to republish Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. For instance: how to stop another massacre by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Or more car bombings in Yemen, such as the one that killed dozens on the same day as the Paris attack?

For journalists, however, the issue is straightforward.

Journalists are more expendable than ever before. New technology has meant journalists are no longer needed to tell a story or reach an audience. As Prothero says, “In the eyes of the jihadist groups, I’m worth more as ransom or an execution video than I am as an impartial observer.”

Global leaders joined the massive march in Paris in the middle of January. Ministers and ambassadors from Turkey, Egypt and Russia were marching for press freedom? Really? Turkey has jailed dozens of journalists. Egypt summarily jails hundreds who exercise their free speech against the military government, and Russia throws investigative journalists out the windows of buildings.

Militant Islam is undoubtedly a serious threat. The likely political response – more surveillance and tougher security laws – is, for journalists, another threat. The Charlie Hebdo attack cannot become simply a hairy-chested test of one’s moral courage, an iteration of George W Bush’s “with us or against us”.

Some of the millions on the streets of Paris declared, “Je suis Charlie. Je suis flic. Je suis juif.” (“I am Charlie. I am a cop. I am Jewish.”) I too tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. But the messages of solidarity won’t make life safer or easier for journalists. 

Rafael Epstein

Rafael Epstein is a broadcast journalist on 774 ABC Melbourne, and a former Fairfax investigative reporter.


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