The Terrifying Data Showing Reporters Under Attack Around the World

Safety, Advocacy,

By Michael Castengera
RTDNA Contributor

The last year may well go down as one of the worst years ever recorded for journalists around the world. And while 2021 was not as bad for journalists in America, there should be some concern for what the future holds, based on recent history. Here are some of the key facts:

  • The number of journalists jailed for their work hit a global record in 2021.
  • More female journalists were arrested globally in 2021 than ever recorded.
  • Journalists “detained for their work” globally in 2021 is the highest on record.
  • A journalist was killed nearly every week around the world last year.

Those are just some of the facts that came out in the annual reports by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), looking at the worldwide picture.

In America, 2021 was not good, but it was not as bad the rest of the world and, more critically, not nearly as bad as the previous 2020 — election — year, according to the U.S. Freedom Tracker site.

More than 400 journalists were assaulted, and more than 140 journalists were arrested in 2020. On the surface at least, last year’s 2021 numbers would appear to be an improvement. There were “only” 142 assaults on journalists and “only” 59 arrests of journalists.

Many believe that President Trump’s attacks on the news media as the “enemy of the people” spurred the attacks on the journalists. And while the numbers dropped from 2020 to 2021, they’re still frightening. There were as many assaults in 2021 as all three previous years (2017, 2018, 2019) combined, and as many arrests as all three of those years combined.

That raises the frightening implication for some that such attacks may become the “new norm” for reporters in the United States.

The worldwide numbers come out in the same year that two journalists have been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize – the first time in the history of the prize that journalists got the award for their journalism, not for other work.

Journalists killed? Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov knows that fact too well. He’s lost six journalists as publisher of Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Journalists jailed? Filipino journalist Maria Ressa knows that fact too well. She’s been jailed ten times as founder of the Philippines website Rappler.

Add these names to the list of journalists under attack: Zhang Zhan, honored as one of Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom laureates, in jail and critically ill; Jimmy Lai, publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and a Press Freedom awardee by the Committee to Protect Journalists, in jail; Mahmoud Abou Zeid, another CPJ awardee, freed in 2019 but being forced to spend every night in jail for the next five years.

The analyses by CPJ and RSF echo the same themes but report different numbers. RSF puts the number of journalists “being detained” at 488 while CPJ puts the number at a much lower 293. Regardless, both organizations clearly are concerned about the sheer numbers.

The report by Reporters Without Borders says it “has never been this high since RSF began publishing its annual round-up in 1995.”

The report by the Committee to Protect Journalists says its records show the number of journalists being jailed has exceeded 250 for the last six years but last year is a global record reflecting “a stark trend.”

An even more startling point made by the two organizations is the number of female journalists in prison. CPJ puts the number at 40, roughly one in seven journalists jailed. RSF puts the number at 60 and adds that it has “never previously registered so many female journalists in prison.” China has the greatest number of female journalists jailed at 19, but Belarus has the unusual distinction of being the only country with more women reporters in jail (17) than male reporters (15).

RSF puts the number of journalists killed at 46 which it says is the lowest number in 20 years. CPJ puts the number of journalists killed at 24 with another 18 deaths are “too murky to determine if they were the specific targets.”

RSF lists three countries as the worst for journalists: Myanmar, Belarus and China. CPJ has the same three, although it cites Chinas as the worst and adds Egypt and Vietnam to the list.

What may be more telling is the two countries that did not make the list this time: Turkey and Saudi Arabia. It’s not because they’re better. It’s because the journalists have been silenced — either because they are arrested and in jail or they have quit because they are afraid they will be arrested and jailed.

(The New York Times used the CPJ report to editorialize about the importance of Freedom of the Press and also to praise President Biden for reversing some of the measures initiated by his predecessor attacking journalists. It also, though, argued in its editorial that Julian Assange’s release of classified materials should not be pursued under the Espionage Act.)

It is expected that in the United States journalists will continue to be arrested and jailed although many observers are hoping it will be at a lower rate than the past four years. In part that is because while Trump will continue his attacks on the media, he no longer has the megaphone he once had as president. Also, the Biden administration has been more open and receptive. But there is another reason. Journalists are fighting back, through the legal system.

According to a report by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, nearly 60 journalists have sued police departments across the country. Interestingly four out of five of those lawsuits “followed aggressions at Black Lives Matter protests,” as the foundation put it.

Most of the cases were settled out of court without a trial, but many are still pending. Of those settled, many included not only fines but agreements by the offending agency to institute changes in police procedures and training for police officers. The other cases are settled with a fine. That’s because many of the reporters feel they want to end the emotional and professional toll on them.

But even in those cases, the reporters say the settlement sends a clear message to the authorities that they will be held accountable when reporters are attacked. One of the reporters quoted in the article said the financial settlements are like speeding tickets that oftentimes change driver behavior. Hopefully, the financial settlements will have the same effect.

Michael Castengera is a newspaper reporter, turned television reporter, turned news manager, turned news consultant, turned university teacher. He is a Senior Lecturer Emeritus at the Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia. You can read more of his writing on his Medium page.