2658 journalists killed in the last thirty years
When the International Federation of Journalists published its first annual report of killed journalists in 1990, very few anticipated that the “journalists killed list” would still be going 30 years later, spanning the entire globe.
The IFJ was the first organisation representing journalists to raise the alarm over their killing and chart their fate every year as they were targeted with impunity in every corner of the globe - brutalized, gunned down, kidnapped by the enemies of press freedom. The IFJ casualty toll included all journalists, freelance as well as support staff such as drivers, fixers and translators who died during newsgathering activities. This was unique in giving a fuller picture of the extent of casualties within the media workforce.
At the time IFJ started counting in 1990, the federation listed 40 journalists and media workers killed in that year. Some believed that this was merely a blip. Sadly, this proved not to be. When aggregating all these numbers, the total adds up to a staggering 2658 killed in the last thirty years. This equates to about two journalists or media workers killed every week.
Over 50% of journalists were killed in the ten most dangerous top spots featuring countries which suffered from war, crime and corruption as well a catastrophic breakdown of law and order. Iraq (339 killed) came top followed by Mexico (175), Philippines (159), Pakistan (138), India (116), Russian Federation (110), Algeria (106), Syria (96), Somalia (93) and Afghanistan (93).
In Iraq, which topped the table and acquired the moniker of the most murderous country in the world for journalists, killings of journalists were rare in the first decade of this period. It was not until 2003, at the onset of the Anglo-American invasion, that the numbers started stacking up.
Similarly, in Afghanistan the numbers (93) reflect the aftermath of the US invasion in 2001. The link between deadly conflicts and a spike in the murders of journalists was also apparent in the civil war in Algeria which kicked off in 1993 and ended in 1996 – the bulk of the 106 killed journalists died in a short period of three years. This was also the case of the war in Syria which started in 2011, and is still ongoing, resulting in 96 killed journalists over the last nine years.
Other conflicts like the long-running insurgency in Somalia has propelled the country to be the most murderous in Africa for journalists. In the Indian sub-continent, murders of journalists in Pakistan (138) and in India (116) have featured almost every year in the killed list since 1990, making up 40% of the total deaths in the Asia Pacific region.
Equally the pattern of the killing of journalists in Mexico, in most cases at the hands of organised crime, made this country the most dangerous in Latin America, featuring on the IFJ list every year and sometimes with double-digit numbers. Bearing in mind that journalists have been targeted in big numbers since the 1970s and 80s, Mexico will remain the most dangerous place for journalists in the planet.
The patterns of regional variations also lift the veil on how these killings have evolved over the years according to specific variables. The Asia Pacific region comes first with 681 killed journalists, followed by Latin America with 571, the Middle East with 558, Africa with 466 and Europe with 373.
There is no single explanation as to why journalists are targeted, but one of the principal causes has always been wars and armed conflicts where journalists who report on them are exposed to injury, kidnapping or worse. In recent years a novel threat to journalists has emerged with the involvement of terrorist organisations.
The untold story, however, is the risk to local journalists as most of the murdered are local beat reporters whose names do not resonate in the media. In fact, nearly 75 percent of journalists killed around the world did not step on a landmine, or get shot in crossfire, or even die in a suicide bombing attack. They were instead murdered outright, such as being killed by a gunman escaping on the back of a motorcycle, shot or stabbed to death near their home or office, or found dead after having been abducted and tortured.
For all these 30 years it has almost become a fact of life that the slaughter continues year in, year out. The IFJ has been at the forefront of exposing the scandal of impunity and the failures of governments to bring the killers to justice. In no less than 90 percent of journalist murders worldwide, there has been little or no prosecution whatsoever. In two-thirds of the cases the killers were not identified at all and probably never will be. This means that it is almost virtually risk-free to kill a journalist – murder has become the easiest and cheapest way of silencing troublesome journalists. Occasionally, a triggerman is identified and brought to trial, but in most cases paymasters go free.
“These are not just statistics. They our friends and colleagues who have dedicated their lives to, and paid the ultimate price for, their work as journalists. We don’t just remember them but we will pursue every case, pressing governments and law enforcement authorities to bring their murderers to justice,” said Anthony Bellanger, IFJ General Secretary.
In their names the IFJ does more every day to find ways of making journalism safer. In 2006, the federation’s campaign led to the United Nations Security Council adopting resolution 1738 which called on governments to protect journalists. But the political will is still not there. Since that motion was passed some 1492 journalists have been killed. A few years ago, as killings reached unprecedented numbers, they attracted attention from some western governments for the first time in over three decades. However, this commitment is again slipping away as the number of killings decreased in the last couple of years.
“The numerous instruments adopted, both at UN and regional level, to reinforce the scope of treaty obligations, some of which address explicitly the issue of impunity, are of course important. But we know their weakness – that most are non-binding and that they operate incrementally. The problem of impunity is indeed well recognised, but the major hindrance for the protection of journalists derives not from the scope of the rights but from implementation deficits”, said Younes Mjahed, IFJ President.
This is why the IFJ took its Convention on the Safety and Independence of Journalists to the United Nations in 2018 and is now mobilising its affiliates worldwide to help put the Convention on the agenda of the UN General Assembly.
As well as intense lobbying of international institutions and governments, the IFJ has over these years, played a unique role in helping journalists confront this ordeal, in setting up training courses in regions most in need; opening up solidarity centres in Algeria, Colombia, the Philippines, Palestine and Sri Lanka, to monitoring crisis situations and distributing assistance; publishing and distributing survival guides and advisories to journalists in conflict zones; and offering cheap insurance.
Being an organisation of trade unions, the IFJ has been able to have a more coherent engagement with media owners, publishers and editors, regarding their responsibility, as employers to educate their journalists in risk assessment, avoid reckless assignments and take all necessary precautions when they send them to work in dangerous environments. The adoption of an international code of conduct for the safe practice of journalism and the inclusion in the annual killed list of work-related deaths have been distinctive tools that helped in this process.
Another important and unique tool is the International Safety Fund, which provides emergency humanitarian assistance to journalists. Since its launch nearly 30 years ago the fund, sustained by the fund-raising efforts of IFJ unions and from donations among journalists, has paid over 3 million Euros to journalists and their families who have fled threats or been victims of violence.
42 killed journalists in 2020
In 2020, the IFJ has recorded 42 killings of journalists (49 in 2019) and media staff so far in targeted attacks, bomb blasts and cross-fire incidents in 15 countries since the start of the year.
But the IFJ warns against complacency, saying that the welcome drop is small consolation in the face of a sustained roll call of tragedy and death due to violence targeting media professionals over these decades.
“The decrease of journalists’ killings in recent years cannot disguise the deadly danger and threats journalists continue to face for doing their work,” Anthony Bellanger said at the launch of the publication to mark the International Day for Human Rights. “The trends in our publications over the last 30 years make it clear to all that there is no room for complacency. Instead, they are an urgent call to redouble our efforts to mobilise for greater protection of journalists and commitment to the safe practice of journalism.”
As of 10 December 2020, the IFJ lists Latin America as the most dangerous region with 15 killings, followed by Asia Pacific on 13 murder cases. Africa and the Arab and Middle East region both posted six killings and are in third place before Europe with two cases.
In its 2020 ranking per country, Mexico tops the list for the fourth time in five years with 13 killings, followed by Pakistan (5) while Afghanistan, India, Iraq and Nigeria recorded 3 killings each. There were also two killings in the Philippines, Somalia and Syria. Finally, there was one journalist killed in Cameroon, Honduras, Paraguay, Russia, Sweden and Yemen.
IFJ study finds at least 235 journalists in jail worldwide
At least 235 journalists are currently in prisons in 34 countries around the world, in work- related cases. The IFJ’s list does not include other journalists facing charges but who have been released on bail.
In its first global study on journalists in prison, the IFJ found that jailing media professionals is often a form of reprisals against brave journalists who stand up for independent reporting which also serves as a deterrent to others. This is especially the case in times of political upheaval and civil unrest where governments resort to a crackdown on media as a means of denying the public access to reliable information.
The study also found many more cases of journalists who were detained for short periods of time before being released without charges, underscoring the fact that their detention had nothing to do with law-breaking but just sheer abuse of power to escape scrutiny for their actions in public office.
The other finding from the study concerns the recurrent allegation of membership of - or support for- groups which are behind the events which journalists cover. This is the case in Turkey, where scores of journalists have been detained after the failed attempted coup of July 2016 on allegations that they supported the coup.
Civil unrest and elections-related protests have also led to massive arrests of journalists and other media professionals, as was the case recently in Belarus. But reporting on the handling of crisis situations, like the outbreak of Covid-19, led to the arrest and detention of journalists in some countries. In one tragic case, a veteran Egyptian journalist, who was detained on this spurious charge, contracted the virus while in custody and died there.
In many cases, the IFJ’s study found that numerous journalists have not been charged with any crime for years after their arrest, even decades for some who are now feared dead, such as in Eritrea.
‘’These findings shine a spotlight on gross abuse by governments who seek to shield themselves against accountability by jailing journalists and denying them due process, ‘’ said IFJ President, Younes Mjahed. ‘’The staggering numbers of our colleagues in detention is a sober reminder of the exacting price journalists around the globe pay for their pursuit of truth in the public interest.’’
According to the study’s findings, Europe is the region with the highest number of journalists in jail, with 91 media professionals in detention, the majority of whom are held in Turkey and Belarus. Africa follows on 62 with Egypt leading the region. Asia Pacific’s list, dominated by China, comes in third place with 47. The Middle East and Arab World with its tally of 33 claims fourth place, with Saudi Arabia at the top. The Americas are a distant fifth with just cases in Cuba and Venezuela.
Countries with the highest numbers of journalists in prison include Turkey (67), Egypt (21), China (23), Eritrea (16), Saudi Arabia (14), Belarus (11), Yemen and Cambodia (9), Cameroon (6), Morocco and Myanmar (5).