'Deadly day' at Maryland newspaper mirrors dangers for journalists around the world

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Journalist E.B Furgurson talk on the phone as police officers respond to an active shooter inside a city building at the Capital Gazette newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, U.S., June 28, 2018.

Capital Gazette reporter E.B Furgurson talks on the phone as police officers respond to an active shooter inside a city building at the newspaper office in Annapolis, Maryland, on June 28, 2018. The newspaper put out an edition the day after five colleagues were killed. 

After a deadly shooting Thursday at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, the United States finds itself in third place this year on the list of deadliest countries in the world for journalists — behind Afghanistan and Syria.

Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that tracks attacks against journalists in the US and around the world. He says Thursday's attack may be an anomaly, but violence against journalists in the US is on the rise. That's particularly the case for local journalists who cover their own communities. 

There were five victims of Thursday's shooting: journalists Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, Wendi Winters and John McNamara, as well as sales assistant Rebecca Smith. Prior to that, just seven US-based journalists had been killed in relation to their work since 1992, when CPJ began keeping records. 

The suspect, Jarrod Ramos, had a history with the community paper. He allegedly used social media to harass Capital Gazette journalists online. And a few years ago, he unsuccessfully sued the paper for defamation. 

Journalists around the world face similar threats every day. In an interview for The World, Simon compares violence against journalists in the US to the dangers they face elsewhere. 

The World: Can you put the Capital Gazette incident in context for us in terms of attacks against journalists in this country?

Simon: In terms of attacks in the United States, yesterday was the most deadly day that we've ever recorded, and perhaps in US history. However, violence against journalists in the United States is in no way unprecedented. In fact there are incidents fairly frequently. There was a journalist killed in Chicago, a young video blogger who covered music, in May. We don't know exactly why he was killed. But [the Capital Gazette shooting] is an unprecedented action.

It seems pretty clear that Jarrod Ramos is a troubled man who likely has emotional or mental health issues. Does that put this particular case in a different category?

We don't really know that much about him or his motivations. We know that he seemed to have an obsession with the newspaper and its coverage and tried to sue them, then threatened them.

But I do want to make another point, which is that local journalists covering their own communities tend to be very vulnerable.

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that there's an intimacy. The people they cover actually know the journalists and interact with them. The second is that the coverage within their own communities can really affect the way in which aggrieved individuals are perceived. And this terrible shooting conforms to that pattern, which we've seen globally.

In the cases you follow globally, have you had incidents like this, where someone's acting out on social media, they seem troubled, and they go after journalists. We hear about, say, in Mexico, lots of journalists have been murdered, and they seem to be targeted around things they are covering, whether it's narco traffickers or whatever. [The Annapolis shooting] seems qualitatively different.

It's very difficult to fully understand the mental state of this individual. We really just don't have enough information.

But there are certain similarities that we have to acknowledge. One is that he was covered in this newspaper, [which] wrote about a criminal conviction against him. He was upset about that. He tried to pursue some sort of legal redress, which was ineffective. He threatened the newspaper.

Around the world, we see that news organizations and individual journalists who are attacked are often threatened first. The people who attacked them, for whatever reason, feel they have some sort of legitimate grievance — maybe that's a result of mental illness. Maybe it's a result of the way they perceive their own interests. But I see certain parallels that are sadly typical of the kinds of attacks we see in many other parts of the world.

Based on what we know so far, this attack appears to be an act of retaliation against this local newspaper. Have you seen this as part of a growing trend here in the US of journalists being attacked because of their work?

If you go back into CPJ's historical data, what we've seen is that most violence against journalists in the United States has been directed against local journalists, but journalists who are working in languages other than English. So, reporting on immigrant communities for their own immigrant media. Over the years we've seen a number of those journalists targeted and killed.

We don't have terrific data on the number of violent attacks against journalists outside of murders. But at the beginning of last year, we started a new project called the US Press Freedom Tracker, which documents attacks on journalists. There have been dozens of violent incidents, some are not terribly alarming, that involve journalists being shot by security guards. There have been a number of journalists [attacked while] covering protests. And of course we have Greg Gianforte, the candidate who tackled journalists from The Guardian, and despite that was elected and is now a member of Congress.  

Your organization has done a lot of work focusing on journalists attacked and killed in other countries. Are you surprised to find you're dealing with these situations here in the US?

I am surprised to be doing with this horrible situation, which puts the US among the most deadly countries in the world [for journalists] this year. It's an anomaly, but keep in mind that it's right now the third most-deadly country. In Afghanistan, 10 journalists have been killed. Syria, five journalists have been killed. And next is the United States.

At the same time, there are a number of very significant press freedom concerns. Outside of violent attacks, we certainly know about the alarming rhetoric coming from political leaders, including President Trump. There have been journalists attacked while covering protests and journalists arrested as well. And we're very concerned about the threat of legal action and possible subpoenas.

I don't think these things are necessarily related. But you put them all together, and you have to recognize that — people think because we have the First Amendment we live in free-expression paradise. But clearly that's not the case.

We don't know a lot about Jared Ramos, but can we say this is really about journalists doing their work, or is it about a person who's very troubled and, like school shooters, goes to the place they feel aggrieved by and just starts shooting?

I think this is about journalists doing their work. Journalists have covered people within their communities who may have mental illness, or may have a whole variety of reasons why they are angered, by what they perceive as attacks by the local media.

I don't make any connection between the type of rhetoric we're hearing from our political leaders. But I do think it's a chance to reboot. And that journalists can't do their job if they don't have the support of the communities they cover: communities writ small, like the community that this newspaper covered, and communities writ large, like this entire country. This is a chance to stop and reflect and say, "Look, we don't want journalism in this country to be a dangerous job."

We want to reaffirm the values enshrined in the First Amendment, values of tolerance and free expression, and we certainly don't want people who are going out reporting on the news to feel that they have to risk their lives to do that.

In the work you do with journalists working in countries where attacks against the press are much more common, is there anything you could share with us that might be helpful to American journalists dealing with such a deadly and personal attack?

The one thing that I would suggest, and this is very hard in the social media environment in which we live, but take threats seriously.

I think there's a certain tolerance that journalists have developed a certain thick skin. When you do these kinds of stories, people get upset — and they sometimes make threats. And there's a tendency to normalize that.

Around the world, one of the things we see in our data is that most attacks are preceded by threats. So the opportunity to take action — to mitigate to reduce the risk of something catastrophic like what happened — is when those threats occur. Those threats ... have to be reported, and to the extent that it's possible, news organizations [must] put in place put in place measures to evaluate such threats and take action to reduce the risk.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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