The story does die too

Exactly seventy-six journalists, were killed worldwide in 2018, and sixteen so far in 2019. In the last decades, 974 journalists met the same fate. Most often, surviving colleagues swore to make sure that the story of their murdered colleague would continue to be told,and that the journalist’s story would not die too. Journalist Fréderike Geerdink investigates, and concludes: the story does indeed die.

Header picture: Hrant Dink (1954-2007), Jamal Khashoggi (1958-2018), Daphne Caruana Galizia (1964-2017)

There are important differences between Jamal Khashoggi and Iyad el-Baghdadi. The first a Saudi with previously good contacts with the Saudi royal family, the second a stateless Palestinian and recognised refugee in Norway.  Khashoggi a writer and journalist, el-Baghdadi a writer and activist. Khashoggi is dead, el-Baghdadi alive. And even though el-Baghdadi did by no means always agree with Khashoggi, ever since the murder of his colleague in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul, he has taken an important new task upon his shoulders: to make sure that Khashoggi’s voice will continue to be heard. El-Baghdadi in a phone interview: ‘Just like Khashoggi I want to let the global elites know what our aspirations are. There is a strong sense in the West that Arab culture and democracy exclude each other. This is dehumanising. With my pieces, I want to show Jamal Khashoggi had been writing opinion pieces for the Washington Post since September 2017. In June of that year, the soil of his motherland had become too hot under his feet and he escaped to the US. For years, he had been part of the Saudi elites and he worked as a journalist and editor-in-chief, until he started to, in veiled terms, criticise the regime’s policies. Especially the war in Yemen and the lack of respect for women’s rights were the focus of his attention.

We cannot ask Khashoggi anymore, but el-Baghdadi thinks he recognises the development that Khashoggi went through as a writer. He said: ‘Something happens to you when you let go of self-censorship. I entered a new world, a new life. That forces you to think about the direction you will take. I was asked by several groups to join them, but I decided to remain independent. I didn’t want to belong to a camp. Something similar happened to Khashoggi.’

They spoke once in a while, el-Baghdadi said: ‘He was lonely. Many people wanted a piece of him, he received proposals from think tanks, but eventually he reached out to activists. He started to become more of an activist. Do you know what female Saudi activists called him? A work in progress. He was humble and disarming, he had no ego. He was supposed to be elitist, he was supposed to be against activists. But he was both: he was part of the elites but he was open to our perspective. A strong ally.’

Iyad el Baghdadi

And now el-Baghdadi has become the ally of his friend and colleague, who was chopped to pieces and whose remains are yet to be found. He also writes for the Washington Post sometimes, even before Khashoggi’s death, and tries in many ways to create a platform for the story of the Arab spring, which, he firmly believes, will sooner or later start to blossom. To the question of which risks are connected to that, he answered: ‘I don’t care about the risks. Expecting danger is worse than the danger itself.’

Ambivalent status

He feels protected because he is stateless, but at the same time this makes him vulnerable. This ambivalent status isn’t new, since he has always experienced it as a stateless Palestinian born in Kuwait and raised in the UAE. He said: ‘Even before I was forced to leave the UAE, [he was forced to choose: either leave the country, or disappear in jail for an undefined period of time, FG] in 2014, I decided to speak out. The pressure only motivates me more. If they don’t want to kill me, I am doing something wrong. Then I don’t annoy them enough.’
Some time after the interview, it turned out that there were serious life threats again el-Baghdadi and the Norwegian authorities have taken steps to protect him.

Twice during the interview, el-Baghdadi explicitly emphasized, however, that he is not continuing Khashoggi’s work. ‘That is not possible’, he said: ‘I don’t have the insider knowledge about the Saudi royal family that he did have. He was in a way writing his autobiography, which was one of the reasons he was murdered.’ Nobody ever succeeded in writing another person’s autobiography. With Khashoggi, his stories and opinions have also died.

Khashoggi was, according to statistics of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) one of the seventy six journalists who died of unnatural causes in 2018. Thirty-four of them were killed, others died at a war front or during an otherwise dangerous assignment. In 2017, seventy-five died. The number of journalists killed isn’t as high as a couple of years ago (2012: 104, 2013: 97) but one time, around the turn of the century, the numbers were, according to the CPJ statistics, at least fifty percent lower. So far in 2019, sixteen journalists have been killed, of which five in Mexico.  

Not every murdered journalist was robbed of his life to specifically silence him or her. Sometimes, ‘the press’ in general is the target, as it was on 30 April 2018, when in Kabul, Afghanistan, nine journalists were killed in one blow when the press had gathered at the location of a bomb attack and a second attacker, dressed up as a journalist, blew himself up in the midst of his ‘colleagues’ . In the US, the local Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, was the target of a man about whom the paper had written in relation to a case of stalking: on 28 June 2018, he forced himself in to the editorial room and shot dead five people, including four journalists.

Does the story that he or she told also die along with the journalist? Not always, I noticed, when I attended the funeral of journalist Nujiyan Erhan in the Shengal region of northwest Iraq, in March 2017. Erhan worked for several media that were all affiliated to the Kurdish (armed) movement. She had died when she reported a commotion between two groups in the region and was shot in the head. After the emotional funeral,which was attended by both civilians and fighters, I asked Nujiyan’s colleague Helin why I hadn’t seen her crying but at most wipe away a few tears. She answered: ‘Because Nujiyan hasn’t died. We keep her alive by continuing our work.’ Not Nujiyan’s work, but ‘our’ work, was the explicit message Helin wanted to give. She would be missed as a person, but her journalism wouldn’t die because it was the journalism of all of them. Nujiyan’s colleagues would use her absence to do their work even more bravely and sharply, and with even more dedication.

Maybe it is comparable to the Capital Gazette in Annapolis: the paper didn’t cease to exist after the five-fold murder. The work continued.

Running Commentary

It becomes more complicated when the journalist does more specific work in a country where the press is not free or independent. The Maltese Daphne Caruana Galizia is one example. Till a certain extent, Caruana Galizia withdrew from the mainstream media community and chose her own journalistic path. She worked unscrupulously. She blogged on her website Running Commentary and broke revealing stories about corruption in government circles, also based on the Panama Papers. Not long after she had put her latest blog online, on 16 October 2017, which closed with the sentence: ‘There are crooks everywhere we look now. The situation is desperate’, she got into her car, which exploded at the first bend in the road.

Who was behind the murder remains unclear: the investigation is being frustrated by the Maltese authorities, as the European Parliament established after looking into the matter.

After the murder, a group of international media swore to not let the stories that Caruana Galizia published die with her. A cooperative effort under the name The Daphne Project between, among others, the Guardian, Reuters, Le Monde and the New York Times, has ever since been digging into corruption cases in Malta in Caruana Galizia’s name. Besides that, they regularly publish about the murder investigation.

The Daphne Project doesn’t talk to the press – at least, that’s the conclusion I draw after requesting interviews with several journalists involved and getting no reaction at all from any of them. The question whether Daphne’s work really lives on in the in themselves laudable stories of the consortium, is, however, not so hard to answer: it doesn’t. It continues the work that Caruana Galizia started, like investigations into passport fraud and money laundering practices at government level, but they don’t have anybody on the ground who knows the country as well as Caruana Galizia did, and who can pick loose new scoops, who knows all those in power, their relations and pasts, who fearlessly reveals, pillories and mocks.

Caroline Muscat

There is such a journalist on Malta. Her name is Caroline Muscat. A few days after the murder of Caruana Galizia, she and a companion rushed to launch a website that they had planned to launch only a few months later. Ever since, The Shift works in the spirit of Caruana Galizia. In an interview in her apartment in a town in the north of Malta, Muscat spoke about her journalistic principles: she will never, in any way, facilitate power, but instead call them to account.

It leads to her making remarkable choices. When the Maltese police arrested three suspects in the Caruana Galizia murder case, The Shift didn’t publish about it. Muscat explained: ‘The men were arrested with a lot of show of power. There are only a handful of people in Malta who can make bombs. Why were they not arrested immediately? These three suspects have no motive. The arrests were a way to conceal the fact that there is no serious investigation going on into those who initiated the killing. As journalists, we will not participate in this scheme.’

Daphne Caruana Galizia was intensely hated by the Maltese establishment and she had no chance of ever getting an interview or scoop from government representatives. And even though I never talked with her, I dare to state that she strived for that as a journalist. By not caring about access to the highest levels of government, she had created the freedom to investigate and reveal whatever she could. Muscat is doing exactly the same.

Still, Muscat said she doesn’t walk in the footsteps of her murdered colleague. She considered those footsteps too big, and she added: ‘The Shift is not depending on me. If one person in the team falls away, The Shift will continue.’


Journalists who work on their own and who do investigative work are vulnerable. Especially when their revelations concern people in power. During their lives they are under immense pressure, and after their deaths the judicial investigations inevitably lead nowhere. In Saudi-Arabia, five people will be brought to justice for the murder of Khashoggi, but the instigator, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, remains untouchable. The judiciary in Malta also hasn’t done much more than arrest some of the alleged executioners.

And in the country where no less than ten journalists were murdered in 2018, most of whom worked alone, Mexico, murderers also get away with it, said Jan-Albert Hootsen, freelance Mexico-correspondent and representative of the CPJ in the country. ‘The journalists who become victims of violence here often report about organized crime and the ties of criminals with local politics. Due to an astronomically high impunity level, the threshold for violence is very low here. Human rights organisation Article 19 calculated that the impunity level in Mexico is at 99.75% when it comes to crimes against journalists.’ It is also the reason why the work of murdered colleagues is often not continued by others, rendering the murders ‘effective’.

Why is it always the journalists who work alone and place themselves to a certain extent outside the journalistic order who most attract the wrath of the powerful? Why is it outside the journalistic order to irritate politicians and criminals so much that they resort to murder, and get away with it?   

The biggest crooks

The Daphne Project is in a way a shocking ambivalence. On the one hand, these giants of international journalism report more about corruption in Malta to make sure Caruana Galizia’s work doesn’t fade away, but on the other hand political and economic tycoons, including the biggest crooks, have easy access to these papers’ pages, including the op-ed pages. Wouldn’t journalists be protected better if not just the stories of these courageous journalists continued to be told, but if especially their uncompromising way of working were carried on?

In the countries where these murders occur, this is difficult. Look at Malta, where Caroline Muscat is under great pressure and is being threatened online, even by people tied to the Maltese government. The Shift discovered that when they went undercover in closed Facebook groups, where also members and well known leaders of the governing party shared their violent fantasies.

If media have more freedom, they have to take their responsibility to hold power accountable and to report the truth more seriously than ever. If all journalists stopped striving to keep having access, but instead strove to be sent away by those in power because their investigations and publications of misbehaviour are too dark to see the light of day, then the bad guys wouldn’t know where to start violently silencing their critics because there would be just too many.

In this regard, I have always found this one BBC slogan very strange: ‘When the big names talk, they talk to the BBC’. How is that a recommendation for a journalistic organisation? Yes, journalists have access to politicians, but that doesn’t mean we have to knock on their doors all the time, or even that we need journalists who do nothing but mingle with powerful politicians all day. On the contrary.

The same goes for for example Turkey, which has a history of murdered journalists and has for years now been the country with the most journalists in jail. In 2007, Armeniam-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was murdered. With his bilingual paper Agos and with his relentless advocacy for reconciliation between Turks and Armenians based on recognition of history, he was outside the journalistic mainstream in Turkey. The web behind his murder extended into the official state and has to date not been fully disentangled.

Mentally exhausted

Iyad el-Baghdadi is safe in Norway. But the murder in Istanbul has made him very aware again that the people he fiercely criticizes in his writing and with his activism – the secular and Islamist dictators in Arab countries – can strike everywhere. Caroline Muscat in Malta is running herself into the ground. The thought that she could be next is obviously too much to handle and she disregards the mere thought of it. In Mexico it’s not a question of whether this year journalists will be again killed by murder squads, but of when the first murder will hit the news.

If we don’t change our journalism, the courageous loners will continue to be in danger.

The Dutch version of this piece was published in Vrij Nederland, February 2019.