Solidarity when politics is the most dangerous beat
The number of journalists murdered for their work in 2019 fell dramatically to the lowest number since the Committee to Protect Journalists first started keeping records in 1992. So, too, journalists killed in combat or crossfire declined to their lowest levels since before the U.S. invasion of Iraq as the deadly conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have abated to a large extent. But amid this heartening news we also saw the fourth consecutive year in which record numbers of journalists were jailed in retaliation for their work, most on anti-state charges, but a rising number of false news charges as politics became the most dangerous beat.
It’s hard to know what’s responsible for the dramatic drop in journalists killed doing their job, but there are some developments in the past couple of years that may provide context. The media have turned the tools of their trade to the protection of their own, having acknowledged that advocating for press freedom is central to their ability to do their work safely and without fear of reprisal.
The murder by Saudi Arabian officials of journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi garnered exceptional public attention. In the wake of one of the most brazen murders of a journalist we’ve ever seen, the media fraternity came together and launched a global campaign to publicize urgent cases of journalists under threat through the One Free Press Coalition while individual outlets, like The Washington Post, opened its pages to advocacy organizations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, so that we could highlight threatened journalists through its Press Freedom Partnership.
Less than a year before Khashoggi’s murder, the brazen assassination of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia by a car bomb just steps from her house highlighted that even a bucolic Mediterranean island that is part of the European Union was not safe for journalism. But her colleagues around the world took up her mantel as more 45 journalists from 15 countries representing 18 outlets collaborated on a series of stories to inform the public about corruption and money-laundering in Malta, drawing on evidence that the 53-year-old Daphne has courageously revealed over the course of 30 years or reporting. The message? If you kill a journalist their stories will not die. Since then, Forbidden Stories has leveraged the power of reporting to ensure that even if a journalist is killed their reporting will not die with them.
The mobilization of the journalism community is an important development in the global struggle for press freedom and has never been more critical. And perhaps it has changed the calculus so that those who would murder journalists will think twice, knowing that the global media spotlight will be trained on them and that journalists’ stories will not die with them.
When CPJ collected the final columns of 24 journalists killed in the line of duty for The Last Column, we realized that many of the journalists featured knew the dangers they faced but persevered nonetheless. So, too, do many of the journalists behind bars.
Too often these threats come from the politicians, government and military officials who should instead be protecting them. Politics was the most dangerous beat this year for both journalists jailed and killed, a chilling fact that emphasizes even further how dangerous reporting on those in power is and how it is more important than ever to hold them to account. We will continue to stand in solidarity with journalists around the world and use the power of the pen to protect the right to report safely and without fear of reprisal.
Originally published in The Washington Post press freedom partnership newsletter.