Mexican crime reporter Armando Rodriguez got into his car at eight in the morning with his young daughter just over a week ago. Then someone shot him eight times. His daughter, Ximena, witnessed the attack but was unharmed. A week earlier, Rodriguez, who reported on crime and drug trafficking, had received a text message warning him to “tone it down.”
The same day, Russian environmental reporter Mikhail Beketov was found unconscious, badly beaten and bleeding, outside his flat in Khimki, northwest of Moscow. He remains in a serious condition. He had published articles critical of the environmental record of the local administration and last year received a “warning” when his car was set alight during the night.
The following day, two journalists, one Japanese, the other Afghan, were shot in Peshawar, in north western Pakistan. They both survived, but one was seriously injured with bullet wounds in the chest.
I wish I could say that these are isolated incidents. In June, the BBC lost two local journalists, both murdered, in the same weekend. Nasteh Dahir Farah was shot in Somalia and the following day Abdul Samad Rohani was shot dead in Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan. These events highlight the dangers faced in reporting from some of the most unstable parts of the globe and the personal sacrifices individuals and their families make to bring these stories to the world.
News organizations take the issue of risk very seriously. The BBC was among the first to develop safety training and support for journalists working in hostile environments.
It is never possible to eradicate risk but a lot of expertise has been developed by the bigger news organizations in how to protect their staff. It remains the case that the majority of those killed or injured are local journalists, rather than employees of big international news services.
This has been journalism’s deadliest decade. The toll of journalists and media staff killed in conflicts or murdered by the people they were investigating has risen remorselessly, from 70 in 2002 to the unprecedented peaks of 2006 and last year, when 173 died in each year. This is against an average of two journalists or news staff killed every week for the past 10 years while carrying out their work.
The figures for this year are looking a little better: still far too high, but significantly down on the previous two years.
The latest figures (as at Nov. 11) from the International News Safety Institute (INSI) — a coalition of news organizations, journalist support groups and individuals exclusively dedicated to the safety of news media staff working in dangerous environments — show that 75 journalists have died so far this year.
An analysis of the figures for this year by Nick Mosdell and Janet Harris of the journalism school at Cardiff University, Wales, suggests a number of reasons why the numbers are down. Iraq is still the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist, but the death toll is down, both in overall numbers and as a proportion of the total deaths worldwide.
This is no doubt partly as a result of the relative decline of the insurgency and the work of the Iraqi government and Iraqi media organizations to protect journalists. But all the 15 journalists and media workers killed so far this year were Iraqis, underlining how much frontline reporting for the rest of the world’s media is being carried out by local journalists.
The high death toll in Georgia, where five journalists were killed in just five days of fighting, shows that despite the terrible losses in the Iraq war, little progress has been made globally in the efforts to make war reporting less hazardous for those working independently.
The analysis also shows there has been no progress at all in dealing with the overriding problem of impunity. Of 54 cases where journalists were killed in action or murdered in the first eight months of the year, there has been only one successful prosecution.
This is an issue both for those reporting conflict and those investigating crime. This year, as in previous years, the majority of deaths are not international or local war correspondents, but local journalists covering politics, corruption and crime in their own countries, murdered to stop their investigations and to deter others.
Here the worry is that the drop in overall numbers, particularly in what have up to now been very dangerous countries — such as in Latin America — may not be so much a reflection of the environment getting safer, but evidence of the chilling effect of extreme violence on investigative reporting.
We need also to go behind the Iraq figures to see how far the costs of coverage and its risks are deterring all but the most powerful news organizations from assigning people to the country.
Furthermore, we need to look at the increase in the kidnappings of journalists, which are now occurring in unprecedented numbers as news staff become targets for criminal and paramilitary groups.
Cardiff University’s journalism school has set up a forum on journalist safety, working with INSI. The forum is about to launch a system to monitor all media deaths to get a full understanding of the numbers.
To put the numbers in context, all that has happened is that the death rate among journalists is back to where it was before the Afghan and Iraq wars triggered an unprecedented rise in the numbers — and that is despite the efforts of the international journalistic community since then to make the profession safer.
The unprecedented international recognition of the problem — UN Security Council Resolution 1738 calls on all states to protect journalists, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made a personal commitment on the issue, as has the Council of Europe — has put pressure on governments to pay more attention to their obligations.
Earlier this year, Ban dedicated a light sculpture on the London skyline to the memory of all news staff killed in the line of work. Every night a light beam, up to 1km high, illuminates a glass and steel sculpture on the roof of the new wing of the BBC’s Broadcasting House for 30 minutes, in tandem with the BBC’s 10 O’Clock News.
But we must never lose sight of the vital importance reporting plays in democracies. As a public service broadcaster, the BBC plays a key role in informing the wider community about what’s going on in the world. All of us owe a huge debt of gratitude to those committed to first-hand reporting from the most difficult parts of the world.
Richard Sambrook is vice chairman of the International News Safety Institute and director of BBC global news.
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