The murder yesterday of five journalists in Annapolis, Maryland in the United States must be sobering for every practising –and not so active – journalist everywhere.
While the killings did not take place near us geographically – Annapolis is 3,320 kilometres from Barbados – and while we may not have known any of the victims, it still feels close to home.
Mass shootings in the United States have become so commonplace that many are beginning to become numb to them.
But with 38-year-old Jarrod Warren Ramos breaking into the Capital Gazette and killing editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who headed special publications; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; sports writer John McNamara, 56; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant, and injuring two other staff members, Rachael Pacella and Janel Cooley, in what police called a targeted attack, it must send a shudder down the spine of everyone who values press freedom.
Up until yesterday, 29 journalists had been killed so far this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an American independent non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists.
A few were killed while on dangerous missions, but the vast majority were murdered simply for doing their jobs – in Afghanistan, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, Nicaragua, India, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen.
But in the United States? The bastion of press freedom?
Of course, we must make it clear that there were no political motives behind the Capital Gazette attack. According to court records, Mr Ramos had a long-standing grudge against the newspaper, which he unsuccessfully sued for defamation in 2012 for accurately reporting an earlier encounter with the law. His profile picture on social media was that of the journalists who wrote the story which he had complained about, even though that journalist no longer worked at the publication.
The authorities said he barricaded the exit doors before blasting through the front door of the newspaper offices and opening fire with a pump-action shotgun purchased legally.
About an hour after the attack one of the reporters, Phil Davis, gave some insight into what happened through Twitter.
“Gunman shot through the glass door to the office and opened fire on multiple employees. Can’t say much more and don’t want to declare anyone dead, but it’s bad. There’s nothing more terrifying than hearing multiple people get shot while you’re under your desk and then hear the gunman reload,” he wrote.
The deadly attack again emphasized the ease with which virtually anyone with a grudge can purchase a gun in the United States and turn it on whomsoever is in the way. We have seen such attacks in schools, churches, cinemas, and at concerts.
But it also shines light on the dangers we face as journalists, whose main interest is in getting to the truth, interpreting it and making it make sense to our readers, listeners and viewers.
While we may be flawed, the vast majority of us are honest, and we simply want to do our jobs fearlessly, without threat to life or limb. Or in the case of small countries like Barbados, without having to worry whether our jobs are safe.
An aggressive, fearless and honest press is critical in a free and democratic country, to hold the powerful to account and to provide a voice for the voiceless.
As Jimmy DeButts, an editor at the Capital, put it in the wake of the killing of his colleagues, “@capgaznews reporters & editors give all they have every day. There are no 40 hour weeks, no big paydays — just a passion for telling stories from our community”.
The situation is similar here where, to quote DeButts again, “we keep doing more with less. We find ways to cover high school sports, breaking news, tax hikes . . . local entertainment . . . . We try to expose corruption”.
We also struggle to access information from those in authority in our efforts to get to the truth, a situation made more difficult by the absence of Freedom Of Information legislation. But we keep pushing nonetheless, in the pursuit of truth.
We are thankful that in Barbados there have been no violent attacks on any of us in retaliation for doing our jobs. But the personal attacks are many, and in the current political climate, relentless.
For asking simple questions, for demanding answers from our ministers, we are vilified, sometime viciously so, by disciples of the political class, while others cheer with the relish of the tricoteuse.
We boast of freedom, openness and transparency here, and for this we are thankful. But we must guard against the urge to silence the press through means other than physical violence. For it is through openness that our democracy will continue to thrive, and it is the press, by speaking truth to power, that ensures that those in whom we place our trust do not use power to impose their own sordid version of truth.