The British political establishment seems to prefer talking about fake killings of journalists rather than real ones. And its reactions seem to depend on where the killings happen.
These double standards are unacceptable.
On 29 May 2018, the BBC – among various other news outlets – falsely reported that Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko had been murdered near his home in Kiev, Ukraine. The article added that Babchenko is “an outspoken critic of the Kremlin”, suggesting a causal link between his ‘murder’ and his journalism. Later that same week, Babchenko told media outlets that his death had been staged.
Boris Johnson, then-UK foreign secretary, had already tweeted the following:
Appalled to see another vocal Russian journalist, Arkady Babchenko, murdered. My thoughts are with his wife and young daughter. We must defend freedom of speech and it is vital that those responsible are now held to account.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) May 30, 2018
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And Johnson’s refusal to delete the tweet (still up as of 2 August) oddly suggests that he remains “appalled” at Babchenko’s murder, despite it never happening.
But while fake killings of Russian journalists are immediately and widely criticised – even when they haven’t been murdered, very real killings in countries with governments allied to the UK attract little to no criticism.
In Colombia, for example, the already critical situation for journalists is deteriorating, yet it rarely attracts high-level condemnation or mainstream media coverage in Britain. The same is true of the situations in Mexico and Turkey.
Where’s the outrage over Colombia?
In 2016, Boris Johnson sent a tweet to then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, within which he managed to misspell the country’s name (“Columbia”). But this appears to be one of the few times Johnson – or any other Tory MP for that matter – has ever spoken about Colombia. While there are 153 records of parliament speaking about journalists in Russia since 2010, there are just 11 mentions of the situation in Colombia.
But threats against Colombian journalists should not be dismissed. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), two Colombian journalists have already been murdered this year – making a total of 51 since 1992.
On 23 July, meanwhile, a joint statement [pdf, Spanish] signed by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the European Union expressed concern over the rising number of threats against Colombian journalists. According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), at least 124 journalists have been threatened in Colombia during 2018 – an increase of 48% on 2017.
In a recent case, a Twitter user told Semana magazine’s María Jimena Duzán that she should be “raped, spat upon, chopped up with a chainsaw and hung in the Plaza de Bolívar”. Duzán was just one of a number of journalists to receive such messages within a 72-hour period, beginning on 14 July 2018.
The sound of selective silence
This year, the murder of two Colombian journalists has received less attention than the fake killing of one Russian journalist.
One journalist killing, of course, is too many. But the British media and political establishment’s outrage is not proportionate to the facts.
The impatience to condemn the ‘murder’ of a Russian journalist, coupled with the silence on journalist killings elsewhere, reveals a cynical game of posturing. When the murder of journalists can be used as a stick with which to beat non-allied states, the event is met with official outrage. When journalists are murdered within ‘friendly’ states with which Britain shares strong political and economic ties, the British state and media remain largely silent.
This relative silence regarding the killings of journalists is particularly concerning given the tacit support Britain and its allies often lend to those responsible. Boris Johnson is right that “we must defend freedom of speech”. But that principle should extend to friend and foe alike.
– Join the British Colombia Solidarity Campaign.
– Support British-based NGO Justice for Colombia.
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