Being a reporter is becoming more dangerous. Most of the more than 600 journalists killed across the world in the last decade were assassinated in peacetime, in places where no active conflict is taking place. Worse, the frequency of sexual attacks is rising to silence women journalists.
A UNESCO official Janis Karklin disclosed this today at an exhibition organized by the UN Correspondents Association in Geneva, Switzerland. The exhibit showed newspaper front pages from over a century, including one that announced the start of World War I on 28 July 1914. UNESCO is the United Nations agency responsible for protecting the freedom of journalists.
Of course, many journalists and media workers have been killed in active war zones, including over 60 who died when the Iraq war intensified between 2006 and 2007. But most of the murders are of local journalists who grew up in the neighborhood, spoke local languages and reported on local issues. The proportion could be as high as 85 per cent, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a non-governmental body.
Those reporters were assassinated because they wrote about local corruption, drug traffic and crime. Most were not on assignment but in their offices, on commutes, or in their homes. Nine out of 10 killings were marked by premeditation, including planning, trained assailants and gangland style executions.
The time is fast approaching when every journalism course will have to provide safety training for local journalists. At the same time, international norms must be developed through the UN on safety training and equipment for journalists, in their localities and in war zones.
Rebel groups, militias, drug traffickers, extremists and corrupt politicians target reporters for killing in countries with insufficient press freedoms. International correspondents often hire security services for protection, which local journalists cannot afford.
The killings are the tip of an iceberg, since many more reporters and media workers suffer harassment, intimidation and arbitrary arrests almost every day. Almost one-quarter of journalists killed over the past 15 years covered politics and one fifth were exposing corruption. Often, the murders are committed with impunity because governments are afraid to confront the influential groups that commission them.
During 2013 and 2014, the UN Human Rights agency and others will launch actions in Iraq, Nepal, Pakistan and South Sudan to improve the safety of journalists and end impunity. Those actions will spread to other countries after the first pilot but the profession may never be less perilous.
Under binding international rules of war (called the Geneva Convention), harming or killing journalists is a war crime. But there are no similar treaties to protect local journalists doing their jobs in normal course.
Even under the Geneva Conventions, journalists may not be protected if their clothing too closely resembles that of soldiers. Security professionals advise all journalists to never dress like security personnel, have authentic press identification and never carry a gun. That is the best advice until governments genuinely start protecting freedom of expression, instead of letting things slide or paying lip service in international forums.