When Reporters Without Borders recently tallied the murders of journalists across the globe in 2019, the organization found that the confirmed death toll, 49, was the lowest since 2003. That was the good news.
The rest of the findings from this and other media groups are less reassuring.
Journalists are being targeted virtually everywhere, not only by government officials or their radical supporters, who may be armed and violent, but also by better-equipped old enemies like organized crime and corrupt politicians.
New “legal” excuses have been found by authorities to surveil, detain, harass, threaten or physically assault reporters, editors and publishers in media organizations, as well as independent commentators and op-ed writers. Charges of “terrorism” are leveled widely for political reasons when opposition protests happen and are covered by reporters — now a highly dangerous media assignment. Reporters and their photographers can document, download and almost instantly circulate evidence of abuses. Social media isn’t all terrible.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has just reported that most notably in 2019, “anti-terror legislation was used against journalists in in Turkey, India, Russia, Nigeria, and Nicaragua.” Such legislation has also been used in the United States when violence occurs and local police or investigative agencies seek access to social media or private computer files.
Attacks on the media are increasing amid proliferating authoritarian regimes and stumbling democracies, whose officials publicly disdain professional journalists’ work and willingly ignore or override legal protections for the media.
Catch-phrases such as “fake news” and “alternative facts,” coined by the Trump administration, now echo in many other countries across the globe, emboldening critics of a free media. On Jan 20, Unesco, which maintains a database on threats to the media, issued a statement calling attention to this phenomenon. It found efforts multiplying to silence critical voices and restrict public access to information.
“Aside from the risk of murder, journalists increasingly experience verbal and physical attacks in connection with their work,” the statement said. “Over recent years there has been a marked rise in imprisonment, kidnapping and physical violence amid widespread rhetoric hostile to the media and journalists.
“Women in the media are particular targets,” according to Unesco. “They are often targets of online harassment, and face threats of gender-based violence.”
First-person reports from women in the media about physical or psychological abuse are becoming more numerous around the world. In July 2019, the independent Dutch Association of Journalists published findings of a survey of more than 350 female journalists. Over half said they had been subjected to intimidation or violence in their work.
The Committee to Protect Journalists republished several of the women’s accounts, including this one, from Clarice Gargard. In her response to the survey, she said:
“Since I often express my opinion on political and social issues, I regularly receive online attacks, threats. Mostly insulting, derogatory, racist and sexist comments on Twitter or Facebook connected to my gender and skin color, but even death threats because of my work. These attacks are sometimes connected to the issues I am covering, but mostly I got them simply because I am a visible black woman in Dutch media and also one of the first such columnists to work for one of the biggest newspapers in the country, NRC Handelsblad, giving a different perspective on society. . . .
“A lot of people seem to have a problem with women expressing their opinion in public in general, and things get worse when you add race or other identities to it. It worsens when radical right-wing politicians, media or pundits target you, as has happened to me.”
For all journalists, especially investigative reporters, working close to home continues to pose hazards. For the first time, no journalist was killed while reporting abroad, the Reporters Without Borders report said. All victims in 2019 were killed in their own countries.
“The proportion of deaths in countries not at war (59%) was greater than deaths in countries at war,” the report found. “Last year, most of the journalists killed (55%) were the victims of a war or a low-intensity conflict. These figures explain another one: 63% of the journalists killed [in 2019] were murdered or deliberately targeted. This is 2% more than in 2018.”
While organizations may differ in methods of determining numbers of deaths, detentions, trials and convictions that take place every year, some common themes emerge.
Generally, the Latin America and the Caribbean region was considered the world’s most dangerous region for journalists in 2019, with — by United Nations count — 22 journalists killed. The next most deadly regions were Asia-Pacific, with 15 deaths, and the Arab states with 10.
Globally, Mexico and Syria had the most recorded killings — 10 each — according to Reporters Without Borders research. China led the world in detentions.
To complete the picture of a journalist’s life of uncertain safety and increasing risk as a new decade begins, the organization recorded 57 media professionals still held hostage at the end of 2019, with another 389 in detention, an increase of 12 percent.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.