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We need journalists now more than ever – so why don’t we do more to protect them?

Take the current war in Ukraine. This is a conflict driven by Vladimir Putin’s personal beliefs and obsessions, but it has also been facilitated by the limited checks and balances in the Russian political system. One of the biggest weaknesses of that system is that Putin’s control over the media is so great that most Russians don’t actually know what is happening in Ukraine, or how the conflict is understood by the rest of the world. The absence of accurate and impartial information has stymied domestic criticism of Putin, lowering the costs of sustaining the conflict and reducing the incentives for the Russian president to change course.

It is not only in Russia that we can see the importance of the media to democracy and human rights. Amartya Sen famously argued that a famine was much less likely to take place in a country with a free press because a government would not be able to let it happen in a country in which failure to act would be front-page news.

It is therefore imperative to protect journalists and free speech if we want to bring an end to a global democratic recession that is now in its seventeenth year – and which has led to a situation in which eight out of ten citizens now live in a country that is either “unfree” or only “partly free”.

And yet the international community regularly don’t.

Protecting media freedoms

It is true that international donors spend a lot of money promoting the media and what the UK government is now calling “open societies”. OECD countries spend around US $600 million on facilitating a stronger and freer media environment around the world every year, and for much of the last five years “Media” has been the third largest sector of Democracy Aid (below “Democracy and Participation” and “Human Rights” but above “Women”, “Political Parties”, and “Elections”).

A Global Media Defence Fund has also been set up to protect media freedom at home and abroad, with significant pledges from a wide range of countries including France, Japan, the UK, the US and New Zealand. In this way, the international community does invest in trying to prevent the erosion of press freedom around the world.

This is particularly striking because journalists are murdered so frequently. Forty-five journalists were killed in 2021 according to the International Press Institute’s Death Watch. That is almost once a week. Only six of those who died did so because of what we might call the environmental dangers related to their professions, such as being caught up in armed conflict or civil unrest. By contrast, twenty-eight, by far the majority – keep in mind that eleven cases are still under investigation – were murdered in direct retaliation for their work.

The most dangerous countries for journalists last year were Mexico (seven deaths), Afghanistan (six), India (six), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (three). But the death toll isn’t contained to a small number of countries – journalists were also killed in Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Yemen, and Haiti. It is important that those reading this in Europe or North America don’t make the mistake of thinking that is something that happens “over there”: last year six journalists were killed in Europe, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Netherlands and one in Greece.

Almost none of these killings were condemned by the world leaders who are among the few people with the influence to do something to prevent them.

Partly as a result of this silence, the killings will continue. As I wrote this blog, the news was emerging that police in Brazil were looking for the missing journalist Dom Phillips and local expert Bruno Pereira. Pereria was a renowned indigenous activist, who was accompanying UK journalist Phillips on a reporting trip about sustainable development in the Amazon. Their bodies were found after a suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira and his brother Oseney confessed and disclosed the location.

Phillips and Pereira had become well known for exposing illegal fishing and other threats to the Amazon. The two men had previously documented a number of threats they had received that were designed to intimidate them into giving up their campaign. They refused, staying true to their values, and may now have paid the ultimate price for their commitment to their principles.

These high-profile deaths have a chilling effect on the media that extends well beyond these individual cases. Each death has a ripple effect, reminding hundreds if not thousands of other journalists of the risks of taking on powerful vested interests, especially in countries in which the rule of law is weak.

Self-censorship and safety

One of the most common conversations I have with the journalists I meet in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe is how much self-censorship they have to do just to stay safe. This is not just an issue for high-profile figures writing national stories. Local journalists and “stringers” can be even more susceptible to intimidation and harassment from local political bosses and criminal networks precisely because they are more economically vulnerable and attacks on them are less likely to receive national and international attention.

Having learned just how much news is deliberately not published on a daily basis, my favourite question to ask journalists working in undemocratic contexts is “what were the best stories you couldn’t publish this year”. The answers almost always include major corruption scandals, embarrassing information about senior government figures, and human rights abuses committed by the security forces. The ability of governments to prevent these stories from getting out undermines accountability. It also enables inefficient and incompetent regimes to maintain misleading reputations as decent and developmentally minded governments.

So why isn’t every death of a journalist front-page news? One answer is perhaps that it sadly happens so often that it is not an “event”. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, almost 1,500 journalists have been killed since 1991. Another is that each death is reported locally, but national borders and the competition for ratings between media houses mean that what represents a compelling story in one country does not in another.

This is something we can all help to change: by amplifying stories and news about the harassment and intimidation of journalists no matter where they are working, we can move this critical issue up the global agenda.

Given the dark details emerging out of Brazil and the importance of a free press for everything from democracy to development, the upcoming Commonwealth Journalist Association-UK Birmingham Student Journalists’ Conference on “Excitement and Risk: Prospects for Journalism in the Digital Age” could not be more relevant or timely. Held at the University of Birmingham and online on 30 June, the diverse and dynamic event will feature panels on everything from the challenges and opportunities opened up by new digital technology to how to report on violence and oppression.

These are issues that one would have hoped we would not need any longer, but sadly these discussions, much like journalists themselves, are as important in 2022 as they have ever been.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme), Professor of Democracy and the Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), University of Birmingham

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