Recent high-profile deaths of journalists have brought to light the dangers members of the profession face when doing their jobs. Markus Korhonen looks more closely at the global security environment for media workers.
In early June, Brazilian indigenous activist Bruno Araújo Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips went missing while returning from a trip in the remote area of Vale do Javari in western Brazil. Within days, it became apparent that the two had been killed, and three men have since been detained as suspects in the case. The motive for the killing has not been confirmed, though disputes between indigenous groups and loggers, miners and hunters are a regular occurrence in the area. Phillips was working on a book on sustainable development in the region, with Pereira, who had close contacts with indigenous groups, acting as a guide and helping to facilitate interviews.
"The nature of journalists' work often requires travel to hostile environments, and particularly where rule of law is weak, their work can bring them in direct conflict with governments, businesspeople or criminal actors."
Over the past ten years, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) data shows that 31 journalists and media workers have been killed in Brazil. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has warned of an increasingly hostile environment for journalists, and particularly for female journalists, since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro. He has repeatedly made threatening statements to the media, including threatening them with physical violence. And his supporters as well as his security staff have carried out both physical and verbal attacks against journalists. In 2021, the National Federation of Journalists (FENAJ) recorded no fewer than 430 attacks against Brazilian journalists, though this figure includes physical attacks alongside threats, verbal assaults and cyberattacks.
a dangerous trade
But Brazil is not alone. Journalists face a range of threats in carrying out their work in other parts of the world, too. The nature of their work often requires travel to hostile environments, and particularly where rule of law is weak, their work can bring them in direct conflict with governments, businesspeople or criminal actors. Over the past 30 years, according to CPJ data, 2,159 journalists or other media workers have been killed globally. The figure includes those killed in crossfire or otherwise during dangerous assignments. Just under half (923) were murdered. Since 2007, when a record 113 journalists and media workers were killed, the numbers show a slow and unsteady decline. In 2021, deaths stood at 49, while so far in 2022 there have been 40 killings.
Media workers are also frequently subject to harassment, imprisonment and kidnapping. In their annual roundup at the end of 2021, RSF noted a record number of journalists and media workers were at the time being detained by governments (488), with a further 65 being held hostage or kidnapped. The number in detention was up 20 percent on the previous year. Significant portions of those detained are concentrated in just a few countries, including the likes of Myanmar and Belarus, where governments have come under increased pressure to contain public dissent.
The global environment for press and media workers remains a generally difficult one. The RSF’s Press Freedom Index takes into account five factors to produce its ratings: political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context as well as journalist safety. In their 2022 index, in only 27 percent of countries is press freedom currently rated as either “good” or “satisfactory”, while in 39 percent it is either “difficult” or “very serious”. Unsurprisingly, the best ratings for press freedom are in stable, peaceful and democratic countries, predominantly in northern Europe, with Costa Rica the only country outside Europe with a “good” rating.
Conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine, will almost inevitably result in more journalist deaths – already at least 15 journalists have lost their lives there. But the challenges media workers face are growing amid increased media polarisation, and are exacerbated by governments that undermine press freedom by questioning the veracity of legitimate news organisations’ outputs, or by outright calling for attacks on the press. In this context, the deaths of Pereira and Phillips, while tragic, are not surprising.