When Killing the Messenger Becomes the Norm

More journalists are assassinated than die in war zones.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Bulgarians light candles during a vigil in memory of Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova in the city of Ruse on Oct. 8. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff /AFP/Getty Images)
Bulgarians light candles during a vigil in memory of Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova in the city of Ruse on Oct. 8. (Photo by Dimitar Dilkoff /AFP/Getty Images)

Viktoria Marinova was not a war correspondent.

She was a Bulgarian TV journalist who covered an alleged corruption scandal on her show before she was murdered last week in the northern town of Ruse, near the Danube River, in the latest incident of deadly violence against journalists around the world.

The circumstances of Marinova’s death remain unclear. But fears that it was connected to her work underscore one of the grim realities of journalism these days: While reporters killed in far-flung war zones are seared into the collective memory, many more journalists are murdered in their own countries, often in connection with their work exposing government corruption and repression.

Out of 1,322 journalists whose deaths have been linked to their work since 1992, 848 were murdered, while 298 were killed in crossfire, according to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s rare for journalists to be murdered in the European Union, but Marinova was the third in the past year.

In October 2017, Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb attack. In February, Slovak reporter Jan Kuciak was shot dead in his home—along with his fiancee—while reporting on alleged links between government officials and organized crime.

And last week, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, where Turkish authorities believe he was killed.

Rob Mahoney, the deputy executive director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, said that worldwide, the atmosphere for journalism has deteriorated.

“It’s not just in the countries that you would think. Even here in the United States, we see a very strong anti-press sentiment coming straight from the top,” he said.

“Leaders around the world that are happy to shut down the space for a free press have latched onto Trump’s rhetoric of ‘fake news’ to shut down stories that they don’t like.”

According to Mahoney, in almost nine out of 10 cases, those who order the killing of journalists go free.

Mahoney noted that in the year since Caruana Galizia was killed, there has been little progress in the investigation.

“That sends a very strong signal to people that this is dangerous work, and you may not be protected,” he said.

In Marinova’s case, German authorities arrested a man in connection with the murder, but the details remain murky.

The Bulgarian interior minister said the suspect’s DNA was found at the scene. Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov said the attack on Marinova appeared to be a spontaneous sexual assault, but he said all possibilities were still being considered.  

Research by Transparency International has shown a strong correlation between corruption in a given country and the risk posed to journalists working there. Using data from the Committee to Protect Journalists, they found that since 2012, nine out of 10 murdered journalists were killed in countries deemed to be highly corrupt.

The group’s Corruption Perceptions Index has found Bulgaria to be the most corrupt member of the European Union, while Reporters without Borders ranked the country 111th out of 180 in its latest annual world press freedom index.

When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, it was ranked 51st out of 169 on the index. The EU subjected Bulgaria and a second country to join that year, Romania, to special monitoring to combat corruption and organized crime.

The director of Transparency International’s EU office, Carl Dolan, noted that while Romania made significant progress on those fronts, Bulgaria has lagged behind.

“We did a survey, which showed that people are more skeptical than ever. People seem to have lost hope of any breakthrough here,” he said.

“Bulgaria is a species of a more general problem, which also see with Poland and Hungary, that once you’re a member, there are very little carrots and sticks with which to encourage reform.”

Marinova was the host of the current affairs TV program “Detector,” which had recently been relaunched. In her final appearance on the program on Sept. 30, Marinova interviewed Bulgarian investigative journalists Attila Biro and Dimitar Stoyanov, who were investigating an alleged fraud involving EU funds. The pair had been arrested earlier in the month while out reporting the story.

The number of forbidden topics [in Bulgaria] is growing all the time,” Marinova said on the program. “Investigative journalists are being systematically removed.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack