Journalists at Risk
The First Amendment provides little comfort for many of the United States' foreign-language journalists, who face the threat of physical violence, sometimes fatal, from their readers.
By William Kleinknecht
William Kleinknecht is a staff writer at Newark's Star-Ledger and author of "The New Ethnic Mobs: The Changing Face of Organized Crime in America," published by The Free Press in 1996.
O N THE SECOND FLOOR of a dingy Brooklyn tenement, in an office cluttered with secondhand desks and piles of yellowing newspapers, Shafqat Chughtai carries on the noble tradition of the American muckraker. His newspaper, Sada-E-Pakistan, an Urdu-language weekly that he publishes on a shoestring budget, likes nothing better than taking potshots at the powerful. Butting up against the paper's paltry advertisements and grainy black-and-white photos are regular exposés of alien smugglers, money launderers and other rogues, who Chughtai claims masquerade as pillars of New York's Pakistani community.
Though Chughtai's experience may seem idyllic--the immigrant publisher happily reveling in press freedoms unavailable in his own country--the reality is not so pretty. The 52-year-old publishes the newspaper with the threat of death hanging over his head. He has been warned more than once to cease his acerbic writings about Pakistani affairs or pay the consequences. Earlier this year, a few days after he published an exposé of an allegedly crooked travel agent, he learned to take those warnings seriously.
As he sat at his desk on the evening of February 1, the door of his office swung open and in walked a group of young men, one brandishing a baseball bat. Before he could say anything, the first blow crashed down and opened a wound in his head. With Chughtai's staff looking on in horror, his assailant kept swinging, breaking bones in the publisher's arm and hand and leaving one of his fingers dangling and almost severed. A short, compact man trained in self-defense in the Pakistani Air Force, Chughtai struggled to his feet during the assault and rammed his body into the midsection of his attacker. His resistance startled the assailants just enough to scare them off.
"They were trying to kill me, and they almost succeeded," Chughtai said as he sat in his office with his head scarred and his broken arm still in a cast. "If I didn't fight back, I would be dead."
Chughtai's brush with death--which led to charges that were later dropped against travel agent Zakir Siddiqui--points up a reality that is often ignored by U.S. media. Many foreign-language journalists in the United States face physical dangers and other forms of intimidation just for reporting the news in their communities.
While physical attacks on mainstream U.S. journalists have been surprisingly rare in this country, their immigrant brethren have not been so lucky. They have been murdered, beaten, firebombed or otherwise threatened with disturbing regularity in recent years. Still others have faced advertising boycotts and other financial pressures that effectively silenced them.
In the last three decades, at least 13 journalists have been murdered in the United States and Canada just for doing their jobs--all but two of them members of the foreign-language press corps, according to human-rights groups. Many others have been threatened or injured, although no group keeps reliable estimates on those incidents.
The latest fatality was Tara Singh Hayer, the publisher of a Punjabi-language newspaper in Surrey, British Columbia, who had courageously defied the threats of Sikh fundamentalists. He was shot and left a paraplegic in a botched assassination attempt in 1988 but refused to end his condemnation of militant Sikhism. Thirteen months ago, his enemies caught up with him, fatally shooting the 62-year-old publisher in the garage of his home as he sat helplessly in his wheelchair. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police have identified a Sikh fundamentalist as a suspect in the attack.
The most publicized of the recent attacks was the March 1992 assassination of Manuel de Dios Unanue, a Cuban-born journalist executed in a Queens restaurant on the orders of a Colombian drug lord who investigators said was offended by the reporter's dogged exposés on the cocaine trade. Following widespread media coverage of the killing, police tracked down de Dios' killer and put him behind bars.
Far more typical was the U.S. media's treatment of five Vietnamese journalists who were killed in California, Texas and Virginia between 1980 and 1991. Police believe all were slain by an anti-Communist group with ties to the former South Vietnamese Army. This blatant terrorism got almost no national media attention, and none of the killings has been solved.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a human-rights group that focuses on assaults against journalists abroad, published a report on the murders of the 10 foreign-born journalists killed on U.S. soil from 1981 to 1994--de Dios, the five Vietnamese, three Haitians and a Taiwanese author shot outside San Francisco. No other organization, including those dedicated to promoting the interests of the press, has made the safeguarding of foreign-language journalists a priority.
"I don't think it is widely known the kinds of dangers that are faced by foreign-language journalists," says Alice Chasan, former editorial director of the New York-based CPJ. "They bring with them to this country the internecine struggles of their own countries, and it spills over into their work here. Our colleagues in the press need to be reminded of these issues."
T HE FOREIGN-LANGUAGE press is no small industry in the United States. New York City has at least 140 immigrant-run newspapers and magazines, and hundreds of other such publications and broadcast organizations exist across the country. California has six Vietnamese-language daily newspapers and 35 weeklies. Many of the millions of Hispanics and Asians in the United States get their information primarily from publications and broadcast outlets that write or speak in their native languages.
And yet foreign-language journalists operate in a world where the First Amendment is often irrelevant. Many of these news outlets are part of tight-knit immigrant enclaves where deviation from certain political or religious orthodoxies can make journalists pariahs, or subject them to physical attack. "I can tell you that the United States Constitution does not exist in Miami," says Francisco Aruca, a left-leaning radio personality in Miami. "There is an unwritten law in Miami: If you are expressing views against the anti-Castro industry, you are going to pay a price."
Aruca has paid that price more than once. The Cuban immigrant has long been a thorn in the side of virulently anti-Communist exiles who make up the Cuban community's business and political elite in South Florida. He first aroused their ire in the late 1970s, when he founded Marazul Charters, a travel agency that arranges tours to Cuba. But what really made him a traitor in the eyes of the anti-Castro lobby was his creation of Radio Progreso, which features Spanish-language programs in which Aruca attacks both the economic embargo of Havana and what he describes as the political intolerance of the chief exile groups. His programs, which air weekdays on WOCN 1450-AM, also carry entertainment from Cuba's state-run radio.
Exile groups regularly brand Aruca an agent of Castro's government, a charge he laughs off. The 59-year-old immigrant points out that he spent time in a Cuban prison in the 1960s for anti-Castro activity. But he doesn't laugh off some of the other tactics used against him, like the noisy demonstrations outside the station's offices or the broken windows or frequent death threats.
In February 1992, a few weeks after the militant exile group Alpha 66 demonstrated outside the radio station, three men broke into the building late on a Sunday night, looking for Aruca. Informed he wasn't there, they beat and tied up the operations manager and ransacked the station. Terrorists have also firebombed Marazul Charters--in 1989 and again in 1996--attacks that Aruca says were directed at his radio program. No one was arrested in any of the incidents and police never accused Alpha 66 of a link to the beatings at the station. "We have constant pressure on us," says Aruca. "We are a well-listened-to program, but companies cannot advertise with us. They are afraid."
Aruca is not the only journalist who has been targeted in Miami. Emilio Milian, the general manager of another Miami radio station, WWFE 550-AM, has sharply criticized anti-Castro terrorism. He lost both legs when his car was blown up in 1976.
Human Rights Watch/Americas issued reports in 1992 and 1994 that condemned the perils to free expression in Miami and warned that right-wing radio stations were inciting groups to violence. "Only a narrow range of speech is acceptable, and views that go beyond these boundaries may be dangerous to the speaker," said the 1994 report, the last study the group made of the region.
The picture is remarkably similar in the Vietnamese-American community, another immigrant milieu dominated by business and political leaders who were forced into exile by Communist revolutionaries. Many of them spent time in re-education camps before escaping the country as boat people, not an experience that left them enamored of Vietnam's Communist leaders. In Southern California's Westminster--the center of a bustling community of some 150,000 Vietnamese--any semblance of support for the Hanoi regime is considered heresy.
Vietnamese-American journalists have learned not to step out of line. No one wants to end up like Tap Van Pham, the publisher of a Vietnamese entertainment magazine, Mai. Pham dared to run an advertisement for a currency-exchange company perceived as being sympathetic to Hanoi. He was killed August 9, 1987, when an arsonist set fire to the building that housed his home and office in Garden Grove, which neighbors Westminster. A group calling itself the Vietnamese Party to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation sent a communiqué to police claiming responsibility for the murder, although it did not indicate whether the advertisement had prompted the attack.
The same group, whose membership has never been clearly identified, has taken responsibility for four other slayings of Vietnamese journalists. Among them was Nguyen Dam Phong, the editor of a Vietnamese-language newspaper in Houston. He was shot to death outside his home on August 24, 1982. Three weeks earlier, Phong's 30,000-circulation paper had run an article branding anti-Communist groups as fronts for gangsters and extortionists. Next to his body, the police found a list of other journalists the group planned to kill.
Another of the victims was Triet Le, a columnist for Van Nghe Tien Phong, a magazine published in Northern Virginia. Le and his wife were shot to death outside their home on September 22, 1990. Le was a maverick columnist with strong anti-Communist views; it was unclear exactly what made him a target.
Yen Do, a retired publisher of the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Westminster, says none of the Vietnamese-language dailies and weeklies in California risk deviating from the anti-Communist line. The specter of violence has not disappeared, he says, but the bigger threat is advertising boycotts that can cripple small publications with thin profit margins.
Do, who favors better U.S. relations with Vietnam's Communist government, has appeared on a death list and had one of his delivery trucks burned. He dealt with the problem by removing himself as editor of the paper and staying out of the public eye.
But he is optimistic about the future of free expression in his community. He says Little Saigon's old guard will eventually be replaced by American-born Vietnamese who have more of an understanding of free speech and are not afflicted by the wounds of the past.
M AINSTREAM JOURNALISTS working in the United States have been astoundingly lucky compared with their colleagues abroad. According to a report CPJ issued in March, 24 journalists in 17 countries were slain for doing their jobs in 1998, most of them in Africa, Asia and Latin America. All but three of them were natives of the countries where they were killed.
The report said Colombia alone has had 50 journalists murdered since 1986--more than have been killed in the United States in this entire century.
That's not to say that intimidation of English-language journalists never happens in the United States. Several U.S. reporters have met grisly fates at the hands of organized crime figures over the decades. Jake Lingle, a Chicago Tribune reporter who acted as a broker between the underworld and crooked politicians, was shot to death in a Chicago pedestrian tunnel in 1930 after he was believed to have double-crossed Al Capone.
Victor Riesel, a syndicated labor columnist who had often decried corruption in unions, was blinded in 1956 when a hoodlum threw sulfuric acid in his face outside a Manhattan restaurant. John DioGuardi, a labor racketeer better known as Johnny Dio, was charged with ordering the attack but went free after witnesses received death threats and refused to testify.
The best-known case was that of Don Bolles, a 47-year-old investigative reporter with the Arizona Republic, who was fatally injured when a bomb exploded in his car outside a Phoenix hotel on June 2, 1976. Bolles lingered for 11 days in the hospital and had both legs and an arm amputated before dying. John Harvey Adamson, the man who planted the bomb, told police he was hired for the killing because Bolles had written a negative article about Kemper Marley Sr., a wealthy rancher and liquor wholesaler. Adamson and two others were convicted of the killing, but Marley died without ever being charged. There is still some dispute about whether Bolles' article about Marley was the entire reason for the killing.
Foreign-language journalists are more vulnerable than their mainstream U.S. colleagues for a number of reasons. Often they are writing about overseas despots who routinely persecute journalists in their own lands and have no qualms about extending their terror across borders, especially since they are out of the reach of foreign law enforcement authorities. According to U.S. officials, de Dios was executed in Queens because his writings had offended leaders of the Cali cartel in Colombia, who were already notorious for their efficient and often violent methods of controlling cocaine sales around the world. One more murder made little difference to drug lords who had the blood of hundreds on their hands.
Henry Liu, a Taiwanese journalist shot outside San Francisco in 1984, was a critic of the Kuomintang regime and had just completed a critical biography of Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo. The head of military intelligence in the Taiwan Defense Ministry was eventually convicted of hiring an organized-crime group to carry out the killing.
According to CPJ, another reason immigrant journalists are in the line of fire is that their murders create such little public outcry. Criminals know that if they murder mainstream U.S. reporters, the media and law enforcement will work to bring the killers to justice. After Bolles was slain, Bob Greene of Newsday led a team of 38 reporters from newspapers around the country to Phoenix to carry on the reporter's work. The Arizona Project, as it became known, produced a 23-part series on political corruption in the state that ran in several major newspapers.
Never has the murder of a foreign-language journalist led to such a crusade by mainstream U.S. journalists.
Hayer, the Sikh publisher murdered in British Columbia, was buried last year without ever being mentioned by the New York Times or the Washington Post--despite the international ramifications of his killing. Likewise, the media outside Southern California have been largely silent on the unsolved killings of the Vietnamese. The FBI reopened the investigation of their murders in 1995--after CPJ issued its report--but no news organization has followed up on the cases. Laura Bosley, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, would not comment on whether the investigation into the Vietnamese murders is still active.
"If 10 American reporters working for the mainstream press--10 Don Bolleses--had been murdered on U.S. soil over the past 13 years, the shock waves would have galvanized the media and law enforcement," CPJ said in its 1994 report. "Yet the assassinations of 10 immigrant journalists...have rarely produced more than ripples of protest."
Bill Keller, managing editor of the New York Times, says most news organizations have a natural instinct to provide coverage when someone in their own profession is murdered. But he said the national media have to weigh the overall news value of any act of brutality and cannot always lean toward coverage merely because the victim is a journalist. Even a paper like the Times has staffing limits, he says, and cannot be everywhere at once.
Bob Greene, now a journalism professor at Hofstra University, has been disappointed by the media's response to some of the killings. "After de Dios was killed, I told a Hispanic journalists' association that they should all write exposés of every drug dealer they could think of in Queens," he says. "But nobody in the media really followed up on his work."
Greene says part of the problem is that U.S. news organizations sometimes have difficulty sorting out whether their foreign-language colleagues have been killed because of something they wrote or broadcast. He said some ethnic journalists double as political activists, which can complicate the view of them as martyred reporters or editors.
Joel Simon, CPJ's deputy director, says the problem could be solved if mainstream news organizations forged better relationships with their foreign-language counterparts. "If the mainstream press would pay more attention, it would provide better protection for immigrant journalists and help the press find more effective ways to cover those [immigrant] communities," which often get too little media attention, Simon says.
W HAT MAKES THE MEDIA'S inattention so ironic is that most of the slain journalists were upholding the finest traditions of the profession--they died because they were relentless and willing to risk everything for their craft.
Hayer, for instance, was well-known in Sikh communities around the world--including in the United States--for his refusal to cower in the face of threats from religious and political zealots. A native of India's Punjab state, Hayer emigrated to Canada in 1970 and joined a burgeoning community of Sikhs in the Vancouver area. Armed with a master's degree in Punjabi, he started a literary magazine and began publishing the Indo-Canadian Times out of his basement in 1978. The paper, the oldest and largest Punjabi-language publication outside India, has a weekly circulation of about 15,000 but claims a much larger readership.
In the 1980s, Hayer supported the drive for an independent Sikh homeland, but he soon became disenchanted by the assassinations and other violence associated with the movement, including the 1985 bombing of an Air India jet flying from Toronto to London. The explosion off the coast of Ireland left 329 dead.
He also came to resent the religious fundamentalism of the most radical Punjabi Sikhs, who he felt tried to force their rigid teachings on followers around the world. For radical Sikhs, Hayer's moderation was tantamount to heresy, and he soon became the target of threats and other forms of harassment.
In 1988, he was shot and seriously wounded inside the newspaper offices. His young assailant was arrested and linked to the International Sikh Youth Federation and Babbar Khalsa, two militant organizations dedicated to the creation of a Sikh homeland.
The shooting left Hayer a paraplegic, but it failed to dampen his opposition to the radical Sikhs. Tension between Hayer and fundamentalists came to a head in August 1998 when Ranjit Singh, then Sikhism's high priest in Punjab, ordered Hayer and four other moderate Sikhs excommunicated from the religion, according to articles in the Vancouver Sun. Hayer and his newspaper protested the order and challenged Singh's authority to say who is a Sikh. As the campaign against Hayer intensified, the publisher accused fundamentalists of intimidating Indian storeowners in Canada, the United States and elsewhere not to carry the Indo-Canadian Times.
Hayer's newspaper and the Vancouver Sun received death threats against him, and three Punjabi-language radio programs that broadcast out of Washington state all but called for his murder. Callers to one station described him as a "dog" and said he should be publicly beaten and share the fate of a journalist assassinated a decade earlier, according to the Sun. A few days before the murder, a caller to another program said "the lame man" would get what he deserves. Despite the threats, Hayer refused to back down.
"If they get me, they get me, there's nothing I can do, and I'm not going to stop my work," he told the Sun. A week later, on November 18, 1998, he was murdered at his Surrey home. The publisher was returning from his office and had just climbed from his car into his wheelchair in the garage when the assailant killed him. Canadian authorities have identified a 38-year-old truck driver from Edmonton, Alberta, as a suspect in the killing but have made no arrests, according to widespread reports in the Canadian media. The authorities said the suspect, a member of the International Sikh Youth Federation, sought revenge for an editorial printed in Hayer's newspaper.
Hayer's son, Sukhdip Singh Hayer, and other family members have dedicated themselves to carrying on his work at the Indo-Canadian Times. They have not softened their criticism of radical Sikhism, says Isabelle Hayer, the murdered man's daughter-in-law. "One of the goals when Dad was assassinated was to shut down the paper," she says. "But the whole family got together and made sure that didn't happen. We have continued the tone and direction we had before he died."
N OT ALL THE INTIMIDATION of foreign-language journalists stems from such byzantine political struggles. It is just as common for immigrant reporters to be pressured merely for reporting on the activities of organized-crime figures in their community. In New York's Chinatown, where sidewalk news kiosks are stacked with Chinese-language dailies and weeklies, journalists have for years lived in fear of the neighborhood's organized-crime element. ###
Between the mid-1960s and the early '90s, Chinatown saw regular outbreaks of violence between gangs such as the Ghost Shadows and Flying Dragons, which competed for the right to extort money from store owners and provide protection for the district's ubiquitous gambling dens. Each of the gangs was allied with fraternal associations known as tongs, whose leaders had their own fingers in the criminal rackets while posing as business and community leaders.
The neighborhood's corrupt power structure should have been fodder for the Chinese press. But reporters who tried to report on organized crime either faced dismissal by their editors or threats from gangs. In a 1984 incident, a member of the Flying Dragons gang walked into the newsroom of the daily newspaper Sing Tao Jih Pao, placed a loaded gun on the editor's desk, and demanded that a reporter who had covered an extortion case be taken off the story. The editor acceded to his demand. In her 1992 book, "Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society," journalist Gwen Kinkead found that such intimidation was the rule rather than the exception. "There is no tradition of independent journalism in Chinatown; everyone is so scared," Ying Chan, a former Chinatown reporter, told Kinkead.
Chinese gangsters aren't the only ones who resent seeing their names in print. At about the same time that de Dios was killed in 1992, police received a tip that a reputed Dominican drug dealer in New York had put a contract on Juan Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican columnist for the New York Daily News who had been writing about his activities. Police took the threat seriously and warned Gonzalez to find new subject matter for his column. "One of the detectives said, ?Look Juan, I just went to Manuel de Dios' funeral. I don't want to go to yours.' They told me to lay off him for a while," Gonzalez says. He says he wrote no further columns about the drug dealer but had pretty much exhausted the topic anyway.
Alexandre Grant, news editor of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, a Manhattan daily that is the nation's largest Russian-language publication, says he received death threats when he was covering the 1996 trial of Vyacheslav Ivanov, a reputed boss in New York for the Russian Mafia. "I received a postcard," Grant says. "They said they were going to plant a bomb and explode my car." Grant says he was offered protection from the FBI for a short period but then went on with his writings about Russian organized crime. He has not received threats since the trial.
Shafqat Chughtai has been butting up against an entirely different underworld. He says he began publishing Urdu-language newspapers in New York City a decade ago, because he felt the six other local Pakistani newspapers were too cozy with criminal elements in the community. After starting and then closing two other newspapers for financial reasons, Chughtai began publishing Sada-E-Pakistan in 1997. He says he has built up a free circulation of about 10,000. Chughtai, who is publisher and chief editor, says the paper is a money loser, subsidized by a driving school that he operates in the same office.
The weekly tabloid, he says, contains a mixture of community listings, international news and investigative reporting about malfeasance in the Pakistani community. "I write about people who are involved in criminal acts, bringing in illegal aliens and dealing in black money," he says. "I never print the story without a thorough investigation. When I get it, I write it."
One of his targets has been Zakir Siddiqui, who owns a prosperous travel agency with offices in Queens, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Chughtai's February 1 beating came after the paper published an article accusing Siddiqui of selling invalid airline tickets that leave customers stranded in airports. On the evening of the attack, newspaper employee Sohail Javed saw Siddiqui arrive with bat-wielding men and point out their target, Javed later told police. Javed told his story to a grand jury, and Siddiqui was indicted.
Chughtai says he and Javed were threatened with death if they testified about the attack. And a few weeks after the beating, the publisher received a copy of his newspaper in the mail with threats and obscene words scrawled on the front. In early June, Javed informed the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office that he wanted to recant his grand jury testimony. He was immediately charged with perjury. After posting bail, he failed to show up for subsequent court dates and is considered a fugitive, the DA's office says. Charges against Siddiqui were dropped.
Siddiqui's lawyer, John Reeves, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the alleged threats and Javed's recantation.
Chughtai says it has been a struggle to keep his paper running since the attack. Several employees quit after being threatened with death, and replacements have been difficult to find, he says. Many advertisers have shied away from the paper for fear of offending Siddiqui, he says.
But the publisher says he still has a civil suit pending against Siddiqui and plans to continue publishing Sada-E-Pakistan. "They can only kill me once," he says. "Until then, I keep going. I have to keep this newspaper going."