So far in 2017, at least 65 journalists have been killed or fatally injured in the course of their work, according to Reporters Sans Frontiers, with reporters murdered accounting for 60 percent of the total figures.
The annual toll of journalists killed in combat or murdered plays a depressing counterpoint to the increasing tendency of despotic leaders, including US President Donald Trump, to brand aggressive reporting as “fake news.”
“Although these figures are alarming, 2017 has been the least deadly year for professional journalists (50 killed) in 14 years,” the press watchdog organization said in its annual report, published on Dec. 18. That may have been because some countries, including Syria, Yemen and Libya, have become too dangerous, but RSF has also observed a growing awareness of the need to protect journalists. The UN has passed several resolutions on the safety of journalists since 2006 and many news organizations have adopted safety procedures.
Depressingly, the number of women journalists killed has doubled over 2017, from five in 2016. Most of them “were experienced and combative investigative reporters,” RSF said. “Despite threats, they continued to investigate and expose cases of corruption.” Among them are some of the most prominent journalists in their individual countries, including Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, Gauri Lankesh in India and Miroslava Breach Velducea in Mexico.
A separate toll by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists found that more than a third killed overall were freelancers, an indication of the continuing trend of major news organizations to not send highly-paid staff reporters into battle, relying instead on people who are willing to risk their lives to report the news without benefit of insurance, health care, living expenses or other benefits
In another noteworthy trend in 2017, according to RSF, some countries that are not at war have become almost as dangerous for journalists as war zones: 46 percent of the deaths occurred in countries where no overt war is taking place, as against 30 percent in 2016. There were almost as many deaths (11) in Mexico as in Syria, which was the deadliest country for journalists in 2017, with 12 killed.
"Investigative journalists working on major stories such as corruption and environmental scandals play a fundamental watchdog role and have become targets for those who are angered by their reporting," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "This alarming situation underlines the need to provide journalists with more protection at a time when both the challenges of news reporting and the dangers are becoming increasingly internationalized."
Like the death toll, the number of journalists in detention has also fallen. The total of 326 journalists in prison on 1 December 2017 was 6 percent fewer than on the same date in 2016. Despite the overall downward trend, there is an unusually high number of detained journalists in certain countries, such as Russia and Morocco, that did not previously number among notable jailers of journalists. Nonetheless, around half of the total number of imprisoned journalists are being held in just five countries. China and Turkey are still the world's two biggest prisons for journalists. They are followed by Syria, Iran, and Vietnam.
Finally, 54 journalists are currently held by armed non-state groups such as Islamic State and the Houthis in Yemen. Almost three quarters of these hostages come from the ranks of local journalists, who are usually paid little and often have to take enormous risks. The foreign journalists currently held hostage were all kidnapped in Syria but little is known about their present location.
One of them – Austin Tice, a freelance journalist working for the McClatchy News Service and the Washington Post, among other publications, has been in captivity since May of 2012. Believed held by the Syrian government, Tice is the subject of an international campaign that has been working vainly to free him.