US Official Charged in Reporter Killing as Threats to Media Rise Globally

A Nevada judge on Tuesday told local official Robert Telles he is charged with the “unlawful, senseless and heinous murder” of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German.

German, who worked at The Las Vegas Sun for two decades and spent the past 12 years at The Las Vegas Review-Journal, was found stabbed on September 3.

He had previously reported on claims that Telles, a Clark County public administrator, created a hostile work environment and had an inappropriate relationship with an employee — allegations that Telles had denied.

Telles was not asked to enter a plea during his arraignment Tuesday. Separately, the county is seeking a court order to remove him from office.

The killing of an American investigative journalist has rattled the media community.

“Every murder is tragic, but the killing of a journalist is particularly troublesome,” Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo said at a September 8 press conference.

The Nevada Press Association issued a statement saying it was “deeply distressed by the possibility that this attack may have been perpetrated by a public official whose actions German was investigating,” which “would be a dagger directed at the heart of a free press and a blow to our democracy.”

Now international press-freedom advocates are saying German’s death should prompt increased efforts to keep journalists safe at a time when threats are on the rise globally, including in democracies.

The killing of journalists is “a rare occurrence” in the U.S., said Leon Willems, a senior adviser to Free Press Unlimited in the Netherlands. “But in my experience, people get used to it very quickly.”

The Amsterdam-based organization works to support journalism in more than 40 countries that have limited or nonexistent press freedom.

Fatal attacks on media used to be something that happened “far away,” Willems told VOA. “But we see an increasing number of cases in democracies with judicial authorities.”

Willems cited the case of the veteran crime reporter Peter R. de Vries, killed in Amsterdam in July 2021.

“The people who fired the trigger were found, but the mastermind hasn’t been apprehended,” Willems said. “It’s shocking that these things happen in countries with the rule of law.”

German is one of only half a dozen journalists to be killed in America in the past five years, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker — a project of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and other media advocacy groups that started in 2017.

Kirstin McCudden, the Tracker’s managing editor, said one journalist’s death is too many.

Steps need to be taken, McCudden said, including creating more awareness of the rhetorical and physical attacks journalists face — including from politicians — and efforts to restrict reporting and generally intimidate them.

“The most dangerous place for journalists here in the U.S. is out in the field,” McCudden told VOA. “Protests and other large gatherings have traditionally been where most journalists are assaulted.”

In 2020 — amid the coronavirus pandemic, nationwide social-justice demonstrations and a polarizing election campaign — the Press Freedom Tracker documented over 500 assaults and detentions of journalists. (By contrast, the Tracker has documented 30 so far this year.)

American journalists are also navigating an increased politicization of their work. Former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have made attacks on news media central to their politics since 2016.

McCudden cited how Cory Mills, the Republican nominee in Florida’s 7th congressional district, released a commercial this year in which he holds a gun and references his company’s riot-control munitions being used by law enforcement against left-wing protesters. “If the media wants to shed some real tears, I can help them out with that,” Mills says.

The National Republican Congressional Committee did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment submitted via its website and to its national press secretary.

Right-wing political commentators are quick to point out that Telles is a Democrat — he lost a Democratic primary following German’s investigation of his behavior in office — but press-freedom advocates say attacks by politicians of any stripe are a concern.

“When you see high-ranking politicians of any party attacking journalists with the power of their office, it sends a message to everyone, regardless of political affiliation: you’re empowered to attack journalists you don’t agree with,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director at the Vienna-based International Press Institute.

Rising intolerance is a global trend “being driven in part by politicians — often at the highest level — attacking, harassing and smearing journalists in their speeches and instigating online mobs against journalists,” said Griffen.

“In democratic countries and places where press freedom is typically more protected, we’ve certainly seen an uptick in violent attacks on the press. We’ve seen it in Europe at least since 2015, when the migrant crisis started, and it’s continued through this pandemic, during which critical reporting turned journalists into enemies for some parts of the population,” he said.

Some reporters now shy away from identifying themselves or displaying the logo of their news organization, Griffen said. Those choices, in turn, can open up media to other risks, such as not being recognized as journalists in encounters with the police.

Some countries developed programs to improve safety. The Netherlands has a collaborative project — PersVeilig — that Griffen described as “a clear best practice.”

The program includes a hotline for journalists under threat, and training for them and their employers. On the government side, the initiative secures commitments on how attacks will be investigated and prosecuted.

In Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries for media with at least 15 killed so far this year, the country has a federal protection mechanism. But journalists enrolled in the program have previously told VOA the measures don’t go far enough.

“News outlets need to become more attuned to potential risk, which isn’t easy,” Griffen said. “No one expected [Telles] to resort to violence, but news outlets need to take any threat seriously.”

Willems of Free Press Unlimited said countries should change how they react to killings, including expanding the approach to prosecutions.

“Crimes against journalists are prosecuted as right-to-life cases, not freedom-of-expression cases,” he said. “But one of the other important reasons to investigate these crimes is the work these journalists were doing.

“When a journalist is murdered, there should be an automatic investigation into what the journalist was writing about — questioning people connected to their stories to get closer to the mastermind behind their killing.”

Journalists can also be part of the solution, Willems said, by doing something they’re often taught not to do — making themselves the story.

“The journalists we see killed around the world were previously threatened or endured harassment or physical abuse,” Willems said. “There’s a predictive quality — when threats go up, physical harm also goes up in the end.”