Who Kills Journalists?
by Stephen Schwartz
The apparent murder in Istanbul of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi raises an old question: who kills journalists?
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, media workers are most at risk at the hands of dictatorships. This may be, to those who spare time to think about it, predictable. Media are enemies of the political lies that underpin every tyrannical regime known to modern times.
A notable example of the targeting of journalists is still remembered in the Balkans: the NATO bombing of Radio Television Serbia (RTS), in Belgrade, on the night of April 23, 1999. That military action left 16 members of the RTS staff dead.
The RTS bombing was considered a legitimate item on the list of NATO actions to curb the genocidal adventurism of Slobodan Milošević, which had destroyed the former Yugoslavia. The media enterprise served as a mouthpiece of the Serb ruler as he indoctrinated his fellow-citizens in the now-familiar post-Soviet diet of ethnic incitement, glorification of terrorism, and disinformation.
But the RTS episode has a backstory that illustrates dramatically the impact of "mediaphobia" on contemporary events.
The families of the dead RTS workers have claimed for years that Serb authorities deliberately failed to warn the media employees of imminent action against RTS. The intent, according to the relatives of those killed, was to present NATO as specifically attacking civilians.
In addition, Milošević and his cronies distrusted RTS and other domestic media for their uneven but persistent habit of exposing the corruption and competition between the rival cliques that form the Belgrade elite.
Serbia is a nation with a history of gangster politics. In 1903, king Aleksandar Obrenović and his wife, Queen Draga, were massacred in a public orgy of brutalization.
Serbia organized the 1914 Sarajevo terrorist plot that began the first world war.
With the formation of Yugoslavia after that war, Serb political criminality continued; the apostle of democracy in Southeast Europe, Croatian leader Stjepan Radić, was assassinated in the Yugoslav parliament in 1928.
Disregard for the security of the highest public figures is accompanied, in the Serbian political context, with contempt for culture, and especially for media, a profession which is more intellectual than visceral.
The outstanding Croatian writer and founder of the Yugoslav Communist movement, Miroslav Krleža, was never purged by Marshal Josip Broz Tito. But during the 1930s Krleža was threatened with murder by Yugoslav Stalinists.
The very great Serbian poet and translator Branko Miljković died in 1961 in suspicious circumstances, after exiling himself from Serbia to Croatia.
Danilo Kiš, a classic of literary modernism, known as a successor of Jorge Luis Borges in his innovative metafiction, and praised by Philip Roth and Susan Sontag, was brutally harassed by the Serbian authorities.
Most characteristically, at the beginning of the NATO intervention in Kosovo, Slavko Ćuruvija, a leading figure in Belgrade media, was assassinated. His death came 12 days before the fatal bombing of RTS.
And, of course, once again in Sarajevo, Serbian aggression against Bosnia-Hercegovina is epitomized by the 1992 destruction of the Osloboðenje tower, a modern building housing the city's main daily newspaper (to which the author of this column is proud to have contributed). Five staff members at Osloboðenje were killed during the Serbian assault on Bosnia.
The war in former Yugoslavia exposed fascinating aspects of the local culture(s). While Bosnian loyalist and Kosovar Albanian journalists were treated justifiably as national heroes pursuing the enlightenment of the citizenry, Croatian journalists were victimized by the "soft authoritarian" president Franjo Tuðman, Macedonian journalists have come to represent an unparalleled example of willing self-sale to Russian intrigues.
In addition, the "murderous angels" of the so-called international humanitarian community (the phrase originates in the critique of the United Nations by the Irish diplomat and author Conor Cruise O'Brien) treated the defenders of media integrity in the Balkans with gross contempt. I watched as media commissars assigned to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) censored, defamed, and otherwise interfered with postwar media workers in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo.
Typically, Bosnian loyalist and Kosovar Albanian reporters were equated falsely with Serbian propagandists, and accused of complicity with Milošević in the rise of Serbian fascism. Disregard for the sacrifices made by Bosnian loyalist and Kosovar Albanian media employees is a constant of life under international domination in the region.
The Balkans are known for convoluted intrigues. RTS was bombed by NATO for its services to a criminal dictatorship, but the killings that occurred were made possible by the agents of the dictator, bent on fabricating genuinely "fake" news.
Who, then, kills journalists?
First, government authorities that fail to protect.
Second, media bosses who sell out the talent of their employees to power.
Third, consumers of media (the "public") that turn away from dedicated newsgathering to luxuriate in a sensory bath of updated bread and circuses.
From the antics of Donald J. Trump as master of "reality TV" to the efforts by the White House occupant to wipe out independent journalism is a short, if not imperceptible, path. Internet promoters have further devalued media by forcing the "monetization" of all information.
Media workers, welcome to the new world. Like the 16 RTS workers in Belgrade in 1999, and like Jamal Khashoggi, you are dead people on parole.
(From 1995 to 1999 Stephen Schwartz was Secretary of the Northern California Media Workers Guild, AFL-CIO. He has served in defense of press freedom and newsworker labor rights for decades, in the U.S. Latin America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.).
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