Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism

The price of truth

The stabbing of a Kazakh reporter forces an American journalist to ponder the state of American media. 

The disturbing news about my friend Lukpan Akhmedyarov reminded me how dangerous life remains for reporters in other parts of the world — and makes me wonder where American journalism now finds itself.

On April 19 five men attacked Akhmedyarov, a 36-year-old reporter for a weekly newspaper in Uralsk, Kazakhstan, not far from his home and stabbed him eight times in the jaw, stomach and chest. Fortunately, he is out of the hospital and recuperating but remains on medical leave until September. I met Akhmedyarov and his colleagues on the newspaper Uralskaya Nedelya in 2003 when I spent a week as a journalism trainer for the International Center for Journalists at his weekly in the western part of Kazakhstan.

Akhmedyarov’s name is an unusual one for English speakers; he also lives in a town that’s far off-the-beaten-track, in a Central Asian nation that remains largely ignored by our U.S.-centric journalism. There is, after all, only so much room and so much time U.S. journalism can devote to Central Asia. As the former foreign news editor at USA Today, I understand those journalism values and agree with them.

The attack on Akhmedyarov reminds me how rarely such incidents happen to journalists in America. In the former Soviet Union, where democracy and free speech still struggle to emerge, such violence is not uncommon.
Brave American reporters like Daniel Pearl and Marie Colvin, among many others, continue to die for the cause of journalism, but not in the U.S. The most famous murder of a U.S. investigative reporter occurred in 1976, when the Arizona Republic’s Don Bolles died after mafia thugs blew up his car. Thankfully, the United States is a nation of laws and social behavior that largely precludes killing journalists.

But American journalism today seems largely uninterested in the often dangerous and difficult work of investigative reporting and opts instead for the more comfortable and more profitable convergence of “media” and “journalism,” two decidedly different activities that have merged as one in the minds of many news consumers. There are, of course, significant exceptions to this trend.

The advent of media conglomerate ownership had made life difficult for working investigative reporters, however. Like British journalists who chose not to look into cellphone hacking, American journalism is largely caught in a cycle of technological innovation and economic hard times and has often turned elsewhere — celebrity gossip, Yahoo trending “stories” and talk radio — for its audience.

Akhmedyarov was a journalism beginner when we met, a young man consumed with the idea of social fairness and reporting on the regional governmental corruption he saw in western Kazakhstan. We spent much time discussing how American reporting worked then and the importance of fully sourcing stories and verifying facts before publication.

The attack on Akhmedyarov was not the first time he ran into trouble with Kazakh authorities. Since 2009, three lawsuits have been filed against him for his critical reporting about officials. Eight days after the April attack, while he was still in the hospital, a new lawsuit filed by a local official opened in court against Akhmedyarov in the West Kazakhstan Oblast. The official demanded 25,000 euros and alleged that Akhmedyarov “hurt his dignity and honor” in one story. It is not fully clear if his work was the direct cause of April’s attack, but it seems likely. Akhmedyarov believes it was ordered by those “who did not like my articles.” His wife was told by her employer to urge Akhmedyarov to stop his reporting and efforts to organize anti-government protests.

Historically, Russian journalists who stirred up trouble had a simple solution to the inevitable personal problems that cropped up: a protector in high places, often a government official or local wealthy patron, known in Russian-speaking countries as “a roof.” I recall asking him about this nine years ago, when he was starting down his journalistic path and wanted to know how he should proceed with a particular story.

“What if things turn bad,” I asked. “Do you have ‘a roof’?”

“Yes,” he said, and smiled at me, showing off his fashionable gold front tooth. “I have, I have. Don’t worry.”

By Timothy Kenny. 

Monitoring press freedom and international affairs from Mid-Missouri Public Radio and the Missouri School of Journalism.
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