The past year has been a traumatic one for journalists worldwide, as the brutal murders of international journalists highlighted the perils that local journalists too often face in anonymity.
Indeed 2014 has been one of the most difficult and dangerous years for journalists since the Committee to Protect Journalists began. We keep track of the name, beat, and cause of death for each journalist who we confirm is killed because of their journalistic activities.
Amid growing animosity toward the press by governments around the world, particularly those who seek to maintain power in the face of reform movements, and the threats posed by organised crime and militant groups such as ISIL, independent journalism is increasingly at risk.
For the third year in a row we see historic levels of journalists killed, imprisoned, and attacked for their work, as the aftermath of the Arab uprisings has been felt worldwide. Though nowhere is the backlash felt more deeply than in the Middle East.
The region is the deadliest in the world, accounting for nearly half of all journalists killed this year. Syria is the most fatal country for journalists for the third year running, although Iraq remains the deadliest historically with at least 166 journalists killed there since the United States toppled Saddam Hussein.
According to CPJ research, at least 60 journalists were killed in 2014, with a relatively high proportion of international journalists figuring among those killed. This year a quarter of those killed were international journalists, nearly double that of previous years, reflecting the fact that in these volatile violent conflicts Western journalists have been targeted and turned into propaganda props or “walking ATMs” to use a term coined by veteran correspondent Janine di Giovanni.
The brutal slaying of American freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff by ISIL underscores the perilous conditions for journalists attempting to cover a complex, multifaceted conflict that is intricately caught up in the foreign policymaking of world powers and militant extremist groups.
The more than 60 local journalists killed since the uprising in Syria began in 2011, however, also highlight the fact that local journalists, whether professional or citizen, most often pay the ultimate price. Local journalists have been forced to pledge allegiance to ISIL and agree to pre-censorship of reports.
CPJ estimates that at least twenty journalists are still missing in Syria, the vast majority local, with at least twelve imprisoned by the authorities. There are few signs that the situation on the ground is likely to improve anytime soon.
ISIL is one of the greatest threats to journalists across the MENA region, turning innocent journalists into pawns, treating them as enemy combatants and spies, in complete disregard for international law.
A posting on a jihadist forum last year said that “journalists are the enemy to the mujahideen in Syria and globally” and should be punished according to Islamic law, although this seems to be the case only if they cannot be ransomed to further fuel the group’s violent expansion through the region.
An investigation by the New York Times found that kidnapping for ransom brought in $66m for al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
Most dangerous beats
Too often the threat to journalists lies not only in the inherent danger of covering violent conflict, but in the very nature of uncovering the truth. Nearly half, 43 percent, of journalists killed were murdered in direct relation to, or retaliation for, their work. I have been struggling to think of another profession where people are targeted simply for doing their jobs.
Human rights, politics and war were the most dangerous beats this year by far. Journalists on the frontlines of history put themselves at risk simply trying to report the news. Without these intrepid reporters we wouldn’t know about human trafficking in Gambia, illegal logging in Cambodia, protests in Venezuela, backsliding on democratic reforms in Burma, or the spread of Ebola in West Africa. Nor would we be able to follow the critically important, historical events of the so-called Arab Spring.
Throughout the world, and particularly in the Middle East, governments and non-state actors are seeking to shift the balance between independent reporting and message control. In Egypt, an unprecedented crackdown on the press has left at least six journalists dead and 12 imprisoned since the military took over power under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Directives restraining independent reporting as well as a restrictive protest law and the expansion of a repressive NGO law have come just when independent journalism is needed most – as the country ostensibly transitions to democracy and seeks to improve economic conditions for the millions of citizens who rose up to demand change nearly four years ago.
The World Bank has underscored the link between the exercise of democracy, the prevention of corruption, and the promotion of transparency, stating that “A free press not only serves as an outlet for expression, but it also provides a source of accountability, a vehicle for civic participation, and a check on official corruption.” But perhaps this is precisely the reason that el-Sisi’s government has put so many journalists in jail – he, like so many rulers around the world, has little interest in combatting official corruption or enabling participation.
Imprisonment and exile
Indeed of the 220 journalists behind bars in this year’s CPJ prison census, 60 percent were convicted of anti-state charges, such as terrorism or subversion, with China and Iran earning the dubious distinction as the world’s leading jailers of journalists.
The leading jailers of journalists are also countries where respect for human rights is weak and corruption is strong. Not surprisingly, many of the countries where journalists are imprisoned also figure among the countries from where journalists are most likely to flee into exile.
|Inside Story – Journalists under attack around the world|
According to statistics based on journalists CPJ has helped through our assistance programme, more than 400 journalists have fled into exile in the past five years, most seeking to escape imprisonment or the threat of violence.
In most cases, they are not able to continue working as journalists, a fact that has broad ramifications for the public at large, whether at home or abroad.
Too often journalists are attacked or harassed by leaders attempting to hold onto power, cover up corruption, and conduct their activities in secret. This is not only a violation of the rights of journalists as individuals, but also of society’s broader right to inform and be informed.
The role of journalists, professional and citizen alike, as a voice for the poor and downtrodden, a provider of information and ideas, a forum for politics and culture, and an engine of change is acknowledged by economists and political scientists as vital to economic development and democracy.
Tomorrow when you pick up your newspaper or check your email headline digest, will you take a moment to consider who is behind that news? Who produced that programme you watched on the nightly news or the latest YouTube report making its rounds on Facebook? Imagine if the following day your newsfeed was empty, the pages of your newspaper blank, the airwaves filled with static.
How would you know what you know? How would you participate as a citizen? As you read the top stories and yearly roundups of 2014, remember those who brought them to you.
Dr Courtney Radsch, PhD, is advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of Digital Dissidence and Political Change: Cyberactivism and Citizen Journalism in Egypt.