So far this year, nearly five dozen journalists have been killed around the world because of who they are and what they do. Now a Latvian reporter may be among them.
Gundars Matīss, a 35-year-old crime and defense reporter for the daily Kurzemes Vārds in the port city of Liepāja, was assaulted the night of Nov. 15. He died in a Rīga hospital 13 days later.
"We don’t have any information that would allow us to state that Gundars was murdered because of his work, but we can’t rule it out, either," Assistant Editor Edgars Lūsēns told me in an e-mail.
Matīss was described by colleagues as his own man, one who told the story of crime in Liepāja not by relying on police reports, but by digging into the underground to try to explain what really was going on. That he may have been murdered by someone who didn’t want a story told is a very plausible scenario.
It wouldn’t be the first time. Just take a look at the reports from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders or the Vienna-based International Press Institute, to name just a few watchdog groups. Last year, according to some record-keepers, 52 journalists died while doing their jobs. This year, thanks in part to the fighting in Afghanistan, the number has reached at least 54, according to IPI’s "Death Watch."
Liepāja police seem to doubt that Matīss may be No. 55. The police, Lūsēns said, dragged their feet in investigating the incident until five days after the attack. And the police also maintain that a more likely motive for the attack was either a personal dispute or robbery, Lūsēns said.
Some Liepāja residents question that version. The Liepaja Online bulletin board in recent days has seen numerous comments speculating that Matīss was the victim of revenge, perhaps because of his investigations of police corruption.
"Liepāja has lost a good person and a professional," wrote one user.
Reporters Without Borders, in a Dec. 3 letter to Interior Minister Mareks Segliņš, expressed its concern over the attack and urged government officials "not to exclude too quickly the possibility of an assault directly related to the journalist’s work."
If Matīss died from injuries received from an assault brought on by what he might have been investigating, if he died because of his work as a journalist, it would be disturbing news indeed. So far, Latvia has been a relatively safe place for journalists. Reporters Without Borders has noted that the first violence against media since Latvia regained independence occurred in November of last year. That’s when the offices of the Russian-language magazine Kapital Latgalii were bombed in Daugavpils. Other than that, it’s been quiet.
Like many journalists, Matīss was not a stranger to threats. Journalists get them all the time, although not all are to be taken seriously. In my career I’ve been twice threatened seriously with a lawsuit for something I wrote, once with a boycott and once with physical violence. None of it came to pass, but it has taught me that it’s part of the risk journalists take when they step onto the public stage.
Matīss, Lūsēns said, had rarely received any serious threats, at least not ones he talked about to his colleagues at Kurzemes Vārds.
"Every once in a while someone would invite him to a ‘discussion’—in a car, for example," Lūsēns said. "He saw that as part of the job and didn’t worry about it much."
And it’s precisely Matīss who was the kind of journalist who could uncover the truth in a case like his, the reporter’s colleagues wrote in a Dec. 5 open letter published in the newspaper.
"But the sad thing," they added, "is that a journalist can’t investigate his own murder."
Journalist Gundars Matīss died Nov. 28 from injuries suffered in a Nov. 15 assault in Liepāja. (Photo courtesy of Kurzemes Vārds)
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