Killing and capturing journalists to prevent the truth from escaping is a disturbing but rising trend.
It is now, more than ever before, more dangerous to be an investigative journalist or conflict reporter. There has been a sharp increase in journalists killed in the line of duty and the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide is at a record high, according to the international Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Seventy journalists were killed worldwide in direct relation to their work by mid-December 2012. This is a 42% increase over 2011, the CPJ reports. The committee is also investigating the deaths of another 30 journalists to establish whether these fatalities were work-related.
The CPJ maintains, “Combat-related deaths in Syria and targeted murders in Somalia, Pakistan and Brazil are the driving forces behind a sharp rise in press fatalities. Unceasing violence during Syria’s conflict proved deadliest, claiming the lives of 28 journalists killed in combat or directly targeted and murdered by government or opposition forces.”
In Syria, domestic media is largely under state control and international journalists are refused permission to report, making their work extremely dangerous.
“While nearly every aspect of journalism has been transformed by technology, the central function that journalists fulfill remains unaltered,” said CPJ executive director, Joel Simon. “Journalists bear witness. When journalists are killed, our understanding of critical global events is diminished. In no place has this truth been revealed more dramatically than Syria, where so many journalists have been killed seeking to inform the world.”
Of those killed, ‘combat-related crossfire’ accounted for one third of the deaths in 2012 and as much as half the total number was made up of targeted murders.
The CPJ maintains that 28% of those killed last year were freelancers, which is similar to the number in 2011, but double the percentage of the toll since 1992.
Twelve journalists were murdered in Somalia, the second-deadliest country in 2012. Not a single murder of a journalist has been prosecuted in this African country in the last 10 years.
“The cycle of silence works like this: a journalist is murdered, a story dies, other reporters are cowed,” says Simon. “The only way to break the cycle is to speak out, demand justice, and insist that our right to receive information be respected. That’s why raising our voice on behalf of our slain colleagues is not just a matter of solidarity. For those of us who care about news and information, it’s also a matter of self-interest.”
On 1 December last year, there were 232 journalists, editors, and photojournalists in prison, an increase of 53 from 2011 and the highest since the CPJ began its survey in 1990. The 2012 figures surpassed the previous record of 185 in prison in 1996.
“We are living in an age when anti-state charges and ‘terrorist’ labels have become the preferred means that governments use to intimidate, detain and imprison journalists,” says Simon. “Criminalising probing coverage of inconvenient topics violates not only international law, but impedes the right of people around the world to gather, disseminate and receive independent information.”
There are 49 journalists imprisoned in Turkey, 45 in Iran, 32 in China, 28 in Eritrea, 15 in Syria, 14 in Vietnam, nine in Azerbaijan, six in Ethiopia, four in Saudi Arabia and four in Uzbekistan. These are the top 10 jailers in December, but these numbers do not include those journalists who were imprisoned and released during the year. These incarcerations – and that of most countries cited in the CPJ census – follow “sweeping crackdowns on criticism and dissent, making use of anti-state charges in retaliation for critical coverage”. These numbers also do not include the journalists who either disappeared or were abducted by non-government entities, like criminal gangs or militant groups.
“With a record number of journalists imprisoned around the world, the time has come to speak out,” said Simon. “We must fight back against governments seeking to cloak their repressive tactics under the banner of fighting terrorism; we must push for broad legislative changes in countries where critical journalism is being criminalised; we must stand up for all those journalists in prison and do all in our power to secure their release; and we must ensure the internet itself remains an open global platform for critical expression.”
This story was first published in the February 2013 issue of The Media magazine.
Image: Marie Colvin