This week the world has turned a spotlight on journalists. Not for the stories they break every day, but for the rising death toll among those who risk their lives to get the story out.
The United Nations says more than 700 journalists have died in the past 10 years because of their work, making this the deadliest decade ever for journalists and other media workers.
Unesco, which faithfully documents and records each of those fatalities, says more than 70 journalists have been killed this year alone.
Now the UN has mobilised an unprecedented campaign to stop the killing.
Last Sunday, 2 November, was proclaimed the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. In a message marking the date, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon pointed to the chilling effect on whole societies of that death toll among enquiring journalists – and the fact that nine out of 10 of those killings go unpunished. “People are scared to speak out against corruption, political repression or other violations of human rights,” Mr Ban said.
An inquest is now under way into the root causes of the anti-media violence. So far the danger has forced major international news organisations to pull back from sending staff to many parts of the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere because the risk of abduction, injury or death is judged to be too high.
Searching questions are being asked of governments and state officials who cover up or take part in this industrial-scale violence against journalists. The news media themselves are also being challenged by human rights groups to do a better job of telling the story of how censorship by fear has taken hold in some societies in Asia, Latin America and even Europe.
Behind every violent death of a journalist is a human story.
But the murder of two French radio journalists, Claude Verlon and Ghislaine Dupont, by an armed rebel group in Mali on 2 November 2013 was the catalyst for the Anti-Impunity Day which will be a fixed point on the international calendar from now on.
Loick Berrou, assignments editor for the TV channel France 24, a sister outfit of Radio France Internationale for which Verlon and Dupont worked, spoke about the new risks of international reporting at a meeting in Strasbourg of international officials, NGOs and media to mark the anniversary of those deaths and the new Anti-Impunity Day.
“In the ’90s, in Bosnia, Rwanda or Afghanistan,” Berrou said, “you could expect that a press badge would protect you. Now it makes you a target.” The two French journalists were murdered because they were journalists, Berrou said.
The same was true for James Foley and Steven Sotloff who were killed by their Islamic State captors in Syria.
Nils Muiznieks, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, stated plainly that police and other public officials must be held accountable for covering up or even committing such attacks on an unprecedented scale. He said police had fired rubber bullets at the eyes of journalists in Ukraine during the anti-regime protests in Kiev last February, and many more had been severely beaten.
Scores of journalists had been abducted and many mistreated in eastern Ukraine since the start of the Russian-backed attempt to wrest some parts of the region from the control of the Kiev government by armed force.
Turkish police had, he said, used excessive force against media workers during this summer’s Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. Police had also attacked journalists with unnecessary force during demonstrations in Spain in March.
Overall, Muiznieks said, police officers were responsible for more than half of all the injuries caused by attacks on journalists around Europe.
The UN, the Council of Europe and leading NGOs all see online journalists and social media producers as being at high risk and in need of stronger protection against threats from repressive governments as well as criminals and sometimes powerful business interests.
Guy Berger, the head of freedom of expression at Unesco, gave out stark figures that tell how enquiring journalists are routinely being silenced, and their killers are then protected by what he called “a vicious cycle of impunity”.
Out of 593 cases of journalist killings from 2006 to 2013, Berger said, only 38 cases had resulted in convictions, according to information provided by the states where the deaths took place. That means justice was done in only 6% of all those killings.
Equally problematic is that Unesco received no information at all from member states about more than 60% of the killings which the agency has condemned in recent years.
International officials pay fulsome tribute to the role of journalists who bear witness to armed conflict, and sometimes to atrocities, in conflict zones around the world.
The deputy prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, James Stewart, said that war correspondents serve an important public interest because the information they make public is “essential to keeping the international public informed about matters of life and death”.
But UN officials and others are increasingly asking why – with the notable exception of al-Jazeera, several of whose journalists are in jail in Egypt – much of the mainstream international media have largely failed to reflect the urgent international concern about targeted violence and injustice against journalists in their own reporting – even though the member states of the UN itself have acknowledged that these represent a global threat to democracy and open government.
Leading NGOs which produce comprehensive factual reports and analysis about threats to journalists and press freedom are also calling for more ‘media engagement’ with international efforts, by reporting the plain facts more fully to the public.
Fresh evidence from a pilot research study in the UK suggests that most British members of the public are unaware that journalists across the world are intentionally murdered. Instead, CFOM’s focus group study found that they believed journalists occasionally get killed by accident in war zones.
Further research on news priorities among media decision-makers and the general public is planned.
Meanwhile intensive monitoring, field work and advocacy campaigns to protect journalists, as well as journalists’ sources and whistle-blowers, are being stepped up by leading NGOs such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, as well as the International Federation of Journalists.
Those organisations are among hundreds around the world which are struggling to turn the tide – often in the face of obstruction or the threat of arrest or violence – against the growing spread of censorship through violence against journalists.
On 4 November, UN agencies are holding a second major meeting in Strasbourg to mark Anti-Impunity Day and to carry out a multi-stakeholder review of the ongoing UN Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity.
CFOM, together with the Council of Europe, Unesco and the European Lawyers Union, organised the 3 November seminar and inter-regional dialogue on the protection of journalists at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.