The psychology of Sacrifice
Efraín Varela knew he would be murdered. He even knew the options his assassins would consider. “If they kill me in the town, they are going to shoot me,” he told his fellow journalists two weeks before his death. “If they take me in the rural area, I am going to be tortured first.” Varela specialized in exposing paramilitary atrocities and corrupt politicians in Arauca, a remote town on Colombia’s lawless plains. Over the years he’d refused bribes and survived other assassination attempts. Then, in June 2002, a hair’s breadth escape from kidnappers convinced him his moment was near. Against the advice of his colleagues, he continued his exposés, until, as he’d predicted, he was seized in the countryside, tortured and shot.
When most people think of journalists dying for a story, they picture war correspondents caught in a cross fire, but Varela’s death is a more typical case. Almost three-quarters of the more than 720 journalists who have died in the line of duty since 1992 have been targeted and murdered. The majority of the fallen – more than 85 percent – have been local journalists. Almost all the masterminds of these murders – 95 percent – have escaped punishment.
I first encountered this plague of murder-with-impunity while researching a book in the Philippines between 2000 and 2003. Fourteen journalists were assassinated outside Manila during that period and not one of their killers was brought to justice. Philippine press freedom advocates complained to the nation’s president that many of the slain had been publicly threatened by politicians and businessmen. The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism predicted worse to come if the perpetrators were not prosecuted. None were, and in 2004 another eight journalists were murdered after being warned to stay silent.
The international organizations that attempted to bring worldwide attention to these unpunished killings were the New York—based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters sans frontières. To government leaders and the general public they made the case that while the murder of any person was reprehensible, the murder of a journalist for his or her reporting had consequences that went far beyond the individual’s death. Journalists stood for the public’s right to know what public figures were doing; they exposed criminality when the police refused to pursue it (or were part of it); and they enlightened communities to the activities of illegal armed groups and terrorists in their area. If journalists could be murdered in retaliation for their work and the killers suffered no consequences, then the societies in which these murders occurred would be at the mercy of sociopaths.
In May 2005, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a bulletin called “Marked for Death,” reporting that the top five countries where journalists had been assassinated since 2000 were, in order of most killed, the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia. These nations were weighted with problems specific to their regions and cultures, but they bore striking similarities in the systematic way criminality was licensed and protected. The journalists, too, bore striking similarities. Most worked low-paying jobs in remote areas controlled by corrupt officials. In their districts, bribery of journalists was the norm, but a lot of those assassinated were famous for being clean. Many had predicted they would be murdered if they kept at their reporting, but they persisted until the bloody end.
Though both the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters sans frontières were scrupulous in their analyses of hundreds of “kill cases,” their summaries of the lives of these journalists were necessarily short, rarely more than an account of their last stories and a paragraph or two of professional résumé. Neither organization attempted to guess at what made these individuals tick. Reading the brief descriptions of the victims left me wondering at the source of their bravery. They had dogged the lives of people who were immune to prosecution but hadn’t lived in the kinds of secure hotels used by foreign correspondents. Often they went home to bungalows with nothing between them and murder but a quarter-inch plywood door. Indeed, a lot of them had publicly announced their intention of pursuing stories in the face of an ethic of impunity that guaranteed retribution. Were they idealists? Egotists? Devout believers in God? Were they motivated by a macho defiance of thugs? A revolutionary’s zeal to help the masses? Perhaps they had become so obsessed with a great story that they were blind to its consequences? Or were their lives so personally buffeted by bandits and death squads that they felt that sacrificing themselves was the price that had to be paid to get the story out?
In the fall of 2005, I chose representative cases in the five most murderous countries and set out to visit their hometowns, interview their families, friends and colleagues, and try to understand their personal motivations. I had two questions in mind:
What makes a poor, small-town reporter stay on a story even though he has been threatened with certain death and offered handsome rewards if he looks the other way?
What is it that allows entire societies to function like criminal enterprises, where truth tellers are publicly killed and no charges are brought against the public figures who ordered the killings?
When journalists are murdered, their lives and work explode, the shards driving deep into the bodies of those closest to them. The people who bore the pieces of these abbreviated lives shared with me the journalists’ private and public sides, noble and flawed. The tales they told revealed that while each risked being murdered according to his or her own unique psychology, these journalists’ professional goals were the same. They believed passionately in the principle that the powerful should be prevented from oppressing the weak. While fallible themselves, they went to work each morning with the conviction that the calling of journalism was to defend the defenseless.
The criminals they faced believed in the opposite principle: that the weak offered opportunities for the enrichment of the powerful. Political and religious predators who organize governments permit no investigation into their ultimate motives, and they react violently when journalists reveal that they serve themselves. In one form or another, all of the slain journalists in this book attempted to expose the organized criminal structure that ruled their nations, and came fatally close to its true workings and affiliations.
At its most fundamental level, organized crime is a licensing system. A gangster maneuvers or murders his way to the top and, to ensure he stays there, awards the right to engage in illegal activities in his territory, expecting tribute in return and providing protection from the law. That single mechanism governs all the nations where journalists are being murdered in greatest numbers. It follows the universal modus operandi: the rise to power is always accompanied by the return of favors – but with a twist. In nations run according to the principle of organized crime, favors are returned in the currency of impunity. Thus, political or religious rulers act like gang bosses, appointing their subordinates to bureaucracies with the understanding that while their salaries will be low, their incomes will be high. Corruption, an ad hoc arrangement in some countries, becomes a formal structure in these places. Lawlessness occurs within the law, and the system of organized crime is locked into the business of the nation. In this manner, the people are robbed and the rulers get rich, and anyone who attempts to defy the rulers finds out very quickly how “organized” organized crime can be.
Across borders and across time, this national licensing system is uniform. Understanding that system, and how governments use it to rule billions of people over millions of square miles, is crucial to understanding how much of the world works. It is also crucial to understanding why journalists are murdered with impunity when they attempt to expose it. In societies where everyone knows the truth but is afraid to speak it, laying out the facts can be an invitation to death. Yet for journalists who are motivated to expose destructive forces, publishing the truth is often the only option – an unavoidable step on the road to societal change, and, in some cases, personal redemption.
During my travels for this book, I tried to discover if there was one moment in the lives of these men and women when they realized they were willing to die for their stories. I am still not certain if all of them deliberately chose martyrdom, or merely used the acceptance of death as a psychological tool that was necessary to do their work. Some were so outraged by the criminality of their nations that they pushed their reporting into the realm of contemptuous editorializing, and were murdered shortly thereafter. Many of their colleagues were equally outraged but survived, and they offered me insights into what journalists had to do to increase their longevity when covering very dangerous territory. In one case, I was scheduled to interview a journalist who had defied the odds and, under constant threat of assassination, was still producing work even more defiant than that of her murdered colleagues. Her name was Anna Politkovskaya, and when I landed in Moscow I learned she had been shot to death while I had been in the air on my way to meet her. Politkovskaya is the subject of one of the chapters in this book.
Her murder, and other unexpected events in the countries I visited, turned what I thought would be a one-year project into one that has lasted four years. At all times I followed the advice of local journalists, pursuing the research slowly. At no time did I put myself in the crosshairs of the danger the victims had faced. I did not go into their towns announcing that I was there to incriminate evil-doers, as the murdered journalists had done. I did not conduct a series of murder investigations, but life investigations.
My greatest fear is that I have fallen short of doing justice to my subjects’ work. When murdered, all of them were in the midst of exposés that went a long way to explaining the problems of their countries. In turn, the problems of their countries went a long way to explaining the problems of their regions: Latin America, the Pacific Rim, South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When put together, the historical and emotional contexts of the journalists’ exposés amounted to a compendium of the social and political forces at play in the world today. The way the journalists died underscored the power of these forces. I can only hope that I have conveyed at least part of what they taught me.
There is little doubt that in many countries murder works. It is the ultimate form of press censorship, eliminating the immediate problem and often intimidating others into silence. It works best when it occurs with impunity; and in the most murderous places for journalists, impunity reigns. Impunity scars the lives of innocent people, and it scarred the lives of the journalists in this book. And yet they kept at their work, with the full knowledge that their countries were ruled by murderous thugs who lived by the principle of organized crime. I have tried to honor them by bringing their lives and the stories they worked on to light, telling truth to those who would murder truth tellers.