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“Attacks on the Press: A Hurdle for Accountable Governance?”

Johanna Martinsson's picture

In recent months, it’s become more evident that journalism is a dangerous business.  Yet, good journalism is crucial for good governance and for an informed citizenry.  During the uprisings in North Africa and in the Middle East, journalists, professional and citizens alike, have been beaten, imprisoned, or gone missing for reporting (or trying to report) facts and stories from the ground.  The sad truth is that the number of attacks on the press around the world is increasing. In fact, there has been a dramatic increase in the last decade.

To this point, CommGAP recently organized a joint seminar with the World Bank’s Demand for Good Governance Network of the Social Development Department.  At the event, Robert Mahoney, Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), presented the harsh facts about press freedom around the world, with a particular focus on Africa and the Middle East.

CPJ, a non-profit organization based in New York, was founded some 30 years ago by journalists.  The organization defends and advocates for the freedom of the press worldwide.  CPJ has a significant amount of data on attacks against journalists and the status of press freedom in all regions. Their annual publication on international press freedom is used to pressure governments to protect the rights of journalists.  The volume provides thorough analysis of the health of press freedom in more than 100 countries and key factors that impede a free press.

So, how serious is it?  Since CPJ started monitoring incidents against the press in 1992, 856 journalists have been killed. In 2010, 145 journalists were imprisoned and 41 killed. It’s not only journalists who are at risk, but also media workers who help with the production of news. From 2004 (at the launch of the Iraq war) and onwards, the killing of journalists has increased dramatically.  For example, many of the journalists who have covered the Iraq war so far have been killed, 87% of those have been local and 13% foreign. Overall, the killing of local journalists is more common than that of foreign correspondents, in all regions.

What’s so disturbing is that the majority of killings of journalists are unsolved, especially in Africa and Russia.  There has been nearly no investigation or prosecution of these cases.  CPJ has published a global impunity index that illustrates the number of unsolved killings in more detail.  Journalists covering politics and corruption have been most at risk of being killed or imprisoned. In Libya, for example, there have been 60 attacks against journalists since the political unrest started this year, and six journalists have gone missing (out of which three journalists went missing after having appeared on the news). While the political turmoil has put journalists at great risk in the Middle East and North Africa, investigative journalism around corruption cases has been the major issue in sub-Saharan Africa. It all boils down to governments who want to control the flow of information and protect vested interests.

As we have seen, the assault against journalists extends to those active online. Mahoney pointed out that more than half of journalists in prison today are from online media. Online journalists, including citizen journalists, have become an important ally for traditional news sources in both gathering and distributing news around the world.  However, social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are often closely monitored by authorities who can quickly have these shut down.

While CPJ is continuing their excellent work in bringing these serious concerns to the forefront, they need support.  Mahoney mentioned that while a few governments have made progress, it’s a very slow process. The development community can be an important ally and facilitator in defending press freedom and securing the space needed for journalists to perform their work. The importance of building capacity for journalists to be able to perform their functions was discussed. However, it’s more than building capacity.  Training of journalists is of no use, if they can’t perform their duties. There needs to be an enabling environment, such as a free, independent, and plural media, but this requires structural changes.  In the end, a free press is needed for citizens to make informed choices and hold leaders accountable. The threat against journalists (and journalism in general) is a serious issue that ought to be addressed and better integrated into development work.

To view Mahoney's presentation, click here (PDF).

Photo Credit: Knight Foundation (on Flickr). Photo taken on August 7, 2010.

"Hundreds of Mexican journalists silently marched in downtown Mexico City in protest of the kidnappings, murder and violence against their peers throughout the country. The march started at the Angel of Independence monument and proceeded down Reforma Avenue to the Ministry of the Interior headquarters where banners draped on the building demanded justice and protection for journalists against violence perpetrated by drug cartels. Placards with written protests and photos of slain or kidnapped colleagues were left on the steps of the Ministry of the Interior and covered with red paint."

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hm, very well written, i can feel the fear of journalists and media people alike... i am a graduate of broadcast and it was kind of hard to throw myself in the lion's den as soon as i graduate... i tried out other options before doing so and, well, its going good for me... so far... but i do miss being in the action...

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