The news about journalists in jeopardy is mixed, according to a recently released analysis from Reporters Without Borders.
First, the good — indeed great — news: 44% fewer journalists were killed in 2019 than in the previous year. While there still were a startling 49 slain, that was the lowest number since 2003. The reduction is almost entirely due to the drop in journalists killed in war zones, such as Syria or Yemen. And most of that is due to the sad fact that there’s considerably less coverage coming from those war-torn nations, in part because it’s simply deemed too dangerous for most news organizations.
Unfortunately, the number of journalists murdered in countries not officially at war was as high as in recent years. It’s been especially deadly in some South and Central American nations like Mexico, where 10 journalists were killed, as well as in Honduras, Haiti and Colombia. In fact, 59% of journalists killed were in such countries — not officially “at war,” but wracked by violence. And for the most part it’s not a case of reporters getting caught in cartel crossfire or another accident: 63% were deliberately targeted.
The news was worse regarding detained journalists. Worldwide, 389 were held because of their work, a 12% rise since last year. China is again the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, locking up 120, with many imprisoned due to reporting on Chinese government repression of the Muslim ethnic minority in Western China.
Elsewhere, the Middle East continues to be a dangerous place for journalists, especially indigenous reporters. Two U.S. allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are holding 34 and 32 journalists, respectively, with the vast majority not being charged, just held, often under deplorable conditions, including allegations of torture. Another U.S. ally, Turkey, an ostensible democracy, is imprisoning 25, the same number as Vietnam. Syria holds 26 officially, but the number is probably vastly higher.
Nonstate actors hold 57. The worst offenders are groups like the Islamic State (officially accounting for 24 hostages), the Houthis in Yemen (14), and terrorist groups like al-Qaida. These dire situations, coupled with unstable governments, are a key contributing factor in fewer journalists reporting on countries (and catastrophes) like Yemen.
The 2019 data does not fully reflect the rolling, roiling protest movements that have arisen worldwide. Tragically, those covering the story may be targeted, so the number of killed, abducted or jailed journalists may rise.
Historically, U.S. presidents have pressed adversary and ally alike to respect the role of the press. But tragically, President Donald Trump has played into authoritarians’ hands with hostile words like “fake news” and the Stalin-era “enemy of the people.” It’s likely, and unfortunate, that the president won’t rise to the responsibility and privilege he’s been granted. So others must.
“We are seeing a serious departure from the principle of the First Amendment and our commitment to the free press by the president through his hostility, his rhetoric,” Dokhi Fassihian, executive director of Reporters Without Borders USA, told an editorial writer. “What’s really important is that members of the Republican Party — his party — and of the Democratic Party speak out about how harmful this is to press freedom around the world.”