More and more journalists are dying for democracy

Media workers from the US to Myanmar are being killed in greater numbers. To protect free and open societies, we need to protect them, writes Jodie Ginsberg.

The World Today Published 31 March 2023 Updated 10 October 2023 3 minute READ

Jodie Ginsberg

President, Committee to Protect Journalists

Democracy is in decline. We know this from the many studies showing growing restrictions on freedoms and rights, a rise in the undermining of credible election results and an increase in lawlessness and impunity for crime.

At the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), we know this because of the increase in attacks on journalists, those at the front line of reporting and exposing this democratic backslide.

Last year was one of the most dangerous ever to be a journalist outside a war zone. In 2022, we documented 67 killings of journalists and media workers – almost a 50 per cent rise on the previous year – and more than half of those took place in countries not at war. A record 363 journalists were in prison at the end of the year – the highest number ever recorded in the 30 years that CPJ has been documenting such detentions.

It should come as no surprise that those given the job of reporting the workings and failings of government, of big business and of political leaders are among those at greatest risk in the current environment. Journalists reporting on corruption are some of the most targeted people worldwide.

Last year, in the United States, Jeff German, an investigative journalist, was stabbed to death outside his home in Las Vegas. The man accused of his killing is a local official whose alleged mismanagement in office had been a focus of German’s reporting.

In Mexico, where at least 13 journalists were killed in 2022, making it the most deadly place for journalists to operate after Ukraine, Heber López Vázquez was shot dead. One suspect arrested after the murder was identified in a number of news articles as the brother of a former municipal official whom Vázquez had accused of corruption.

‘Enemies of the people’

The list of journalists murdered for exposing wrongdoing at the highest levels of government and business is long and stretches all over the globe. Local journalists are disproportionately affected. Without the protection of a nationally recognized name, or the backing of a well-known news organization, local journalists are vulnerable.

Of the 19 journalists murdered in retaliation for their work last year, 18 were locals covering sensitive topics such as politics, crime or corruption in their home countries. All four of the murders in the Philippines, for example, targeted radio journalists covering local politics.

Murder is the most extreme form of censorship a journalist can face. But it is by no means the only mechanism available to silence them.

Even in countries with stable political environments, impunity for the killers of journalists reinforces the idea that they are fair game

More and more leaders are smearing journalists as ‘enemies of the people’ which increases their vulnerability in volatile situations such as protests and rallies. One of the most frequent queries from newsrooms to our help desk is for advice on physical security – and even the need for personal protective equipment – to cover such events. As the number of protests worldwide has risen and extended bouts of social unrest increase, the challenge is mounting.

All of this matters because the risk is that, faced with such relentless pressure and affected both mentally and physically,  journalists will turn away from doing this essential work. In all the cases we have  documented, journalists were engaged in work that would help keep the public safe and informed.

A robust free press ensures that those in and with power are accountable to the people. Without it, individuals cannot take the decisions they need to protect their health, their homes or their families. It is a grim picture but one that we need to look at head on because it is unlikely to change in the near term.

Political instability is producing complex crises, as seen in Syria, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Even in countries with more stable political environments, continued impunity for the killers of journalists helps to reinforce the idea that journalists are fair game. And abuses of law by governments foster a climate in which censorship can flourish.

A safety bot for journalists

As journalists are likely to remain at risk, it is imperative that efforts are strengthened to support their safety. At CPJ, we are stepping up our emergency support, including the introduction of a new legal assistance network for journalists at risk, and through initiatives such as our WhatsApp safety bot being rolled out in Ukraine. We also press for countries to establish or expand formal emergency visa programmes specifically for journalists at risk and long-term safe refuge options for those displaced.

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Other initiatives are increasing funding for public interest media and supporting efforts to build more news outlets serving local and marginalized communities. It is essential that these groups continue to have a voice at a time when independent news outlets are in decline.

These approaches recognize newsrooms require a concerted effort at all levels to protect and sustain those reporting locally. This approach recognizes a diverse media that serves all communities, advances democracy and freedom and protects human rights. It is an approach that recognizes that when the press is under attack, we are all at risk and that press freedom is our freedom.