Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

A human side to Mexico’s gangs?

Protecting communities, building schools and now offering to avenge the death of a campaigning pacifist – is the seemingly human side of Mexico’s drug gangs hampering the government’s ‘war on drugs’?

In June 2009, Rubi Marisol Escobedo’s mutilated body was found in a bin in Ciudad Juarez. Her boyfriend, Sergio Arranza, was arrested but later released from custody, prompting Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, to begin a campaign to ensure her daughter’s killers were brought to justice. On 19 December this year, Marisela was shot dead. On 21 December, Marisela’s brother-in-law was also killed and his timber business burnt down.

Mexico is reeling from this triple attack on a family. But help has arrived from an unexpected source: the Sinaloa gang. Arguably the country’s most powerful gang, led by Joaquin ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzman, they have called on the public to denounce the killers. They have also offered to carry out justice themselves and punish the murderers in their own way.

It may seem incongruous but many of the gangs see themselves as upholders of public order. Many Mexicans agree. On 9 December, Mexican police shot dead Nazario Moreno, the leader of notorious gang La Familia Michoacana. Three days later, some 300 people held a peaceful rally in the Michoacan state capital Morelia in support of La Familia.

La Familia gang is seen as a way of life in the state and funds from the gang have been directed to road and school-building programmes. They are the most overtly religious of the cartels, promoting family and Catholic values. Mr Moreno wrote a book, The Family Bible, which contained the moral code used to train new recruits.

In Sinaloa state, locals can see the community developments which the Sinaloa gang have brought about. Generations of families are connected to the gangs in some way, through an uncle or a brother. When that relative is sending back huge sums of money to improve the family lot and the community, why would one say anything to the authorities?

Many recognise the inextricable links between gang and community up and down the country. Calderon is fighting more than the gangsters and will have to change the culture of villages and towns across his country to turn the tide in the war.

Mexican bicentenary year closing in familiar bloody fashion

This has been another violent year in Mexico and celebrations for the bicentenary of the uprising that led to independence and the centenary of the Revolution have been overshadowed by record numbers of deaths.

There was some slight relief for Mexican president Felipe Calderon this week as the National Security Council (CSN) released figures showing decreases in the weekly death toll for the country’s two most deadly states, the border regions of Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon.

Furthermore, the death toll in Ciudad Juarez, the most dangerous city, was slashed by 50% last month. But, just as has happened in the past when promising data have been published about the city, the information has been rendered fruitless as this weekend (4/5 December) has been another bloody one. Gangsters shot dead 10 people in two separate attacks in Juarez, according to the state-run news agency Notimex. Firstly, a group of armed men ambushed four municipal policemen and six people at a local metal works shop were also killed when gunmen gatecrashed a barbecue, continuing gangsters’ penchant for committing multiple murders at parties and family get-togethers. There have been more than 2,500 deaths in Juarez so far this year.

There are two particular areas of growing concern for the government, which launched the US-backed ‘war on drugs’ four years ago. The first is the rising numbers of women who are involved in the war. On 19 October, a 20-year-old criminology student was sworn in as the police chief in the town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravo, in Chihuahua state. She was following in the unfortunate footsteps of Hermila Garcia Quinones, who was the first Mexican woman to take charge of a local police force. Last week, Mrs Garcia was assassinated.

The second area is particularly chilling: the children who work for the gangs. In the same week as Garcia’s death, Mexican soldiers arrested a 14-year-old boy on suspicion of beheading victims for a faction of the Beltran Leyva cartel.

But the encouraging figures from the CSN do not mask the truth: the drugs war is far from over and the strength and reach of the gangs shows no sign of abating. More than 10,000 people have been killed this year and the total figure since 2006 has surpassed the gruesome milestone of 28,000. There were massed parades and fiestas galore in September (Independence) and November (Revolution) but in this year of historical celebration, the drugs war ploughs on. With neither side backing down, it is hard to see how the situation can improve in 2011.

The fine line between defence and politics

On Monday 18 October the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, was promoted to second-in-command of his country’s Central Military Commission, the government body which controls the 2.2 million-strong army. It is a posting which is undoubtedly seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency in 2013 in a nation where the military and political promotions go hand-in-hand.

The next day, 5000 miles away in London, the coalition government led by the Conservatives announced wide-ranging defence budget cuts. The run-up to the publication of the ‘Strategic Defence Review’ was dominated by criticism from the opposition Labour party, the public, soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. Even the Defence Secretary himself was found to have been railing against the cuts he was asked to find by George Osborne, the British Chancellor. The outcome of the report has been a source of contention and paradoxy: the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ark Royal, is to be retired four years earlier than planned but two new aircraft carriers will be built. However, there will be no British planes for use on the ships for 9 years. In addition to the naval cuts, the number of tanks and artillery pieces will be slashed by 40% and up to 20,000 service jobs will be at risk.

The government has stressed that a streamlining of a mismanaged and economically wasteful budget was imperative but there is no doubt that the British military standing in the world will be severely reduced, and any future conflicts will probably be impossible without allies’ aid.

But this notion does not apply to the UK alone. The Falklands War in 1982 was a purely British-Argentine affair, although each combatant did receive oral backing, Argentina from some fellow South Americans and Spain, and the UK from the US and Chile. Times have advanced though and if tensions rise once more in the South Atlantic, then Argentina would be able to call on direct military support from friends on the continent, notably Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Britain would be unable to respond as it did in 1982 and would have to seek out allies of its own.

The current Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, reshone the spotlight on Las Malvinas last weekend through Twitter when she labelled British soldiers carrying out exercises on East Falkland island ‘pirates’. Chavez also joined in online, recalling for the return of the archipelago to Argentina.

Looking further north, there is a different type of military deployment occurring in Colombia and Mexico. Both countries have large-scale deployment internally, as presidents Santos and Calderon look to conquer the drugs gangs. Mexico has sent the greatest number of soldiers to the frontline, and has also increased the remit of the navy and its marines, who are regularly involved in operations inland, not just in coastal areas. The gangsters are ingenious, and only the armed forces have the firepower to engage with the gangs, and the know-how to intercept seaborne missions and underwater deliveries via miniature submarines, although these conflicts have led to a massive death toll over the last four years, with more than 28,000 killed.

Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the two African countries which are consistently in the current military news regarding Africa. Somalia hits the headlines for the ongoing unrest and firefights between the Al-Shabab militia and government forces, with the armed piracy situation adding to the problem. And the DRC is in the news for the gross abuses of villagers carried out by the army. The African Union (AU) provides peacekeeping elements to both these nations, among others, and it is in Africa where we see this type of military sanctioning and control the most in the current climate.

Looking back across the Indian Ocean, Burma has been under the control of a military regime for the past 22 years, and any attempts to promote democracy are dealt a fierce rebuke. Upcoming elections will be closed to outside observers, disallowing direct comment on the campaigns and results. Indeed, as Indian Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked on Thursday 21 October, only Burma’s closest allies, (which he cited as India, China and Thailand), have enough sway within the governing junta to be able to argue for democracy or promote greater transparency regarding human rights. Burma has an omnipotent role for the military in daily life in the country, but it is not the only Asian country to place such great value on the standing of the armed forces.

Last week, North Korea’s rulers named the present leader Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un as a general, and the foreign media (which was allowed within the borders, albeit under tight monitoring) was quick to point out the proximity of military high-command to political office. It certainly seems that Kim Jong-un, the dictator’s youngest son, will replace his father as the head of the country, but such a transition would have been extremely difficult without first giving him a prominent military role.

South Korea has US backing but has been keen to extend the diplomatic arm in recent months, refusing heavy-handed retaliative action after its neighbours sunk a warship in May. With Australia and New Zealand playing minor roles in Afghanistan, there remains the possibility that they could find themselves getting more and more involved with the nations to their north in the future.