Health care and other essential workers have been in the front line fighting the pandemic and its effects for the past 12 months. But so too have media workers, upholding Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects the people’s right to receive and impart information. The journalist’s job has been particularly vital in 2020, a year when accessing high quality and verified information about the Covid-19 pandemic has, literally, saved lives.
Regrettably, these efforts had a dramatic human cost for our profession. Since the pandemic began, journalists all over the world risked their lives to report on the field without proper protection equipment or safety training. Under these circumstances, many of them got infected by the Covid-19 virus while performing their professional duties and died. Their memory will always remain in our thoughts.
Journalism may not be seen as one of the most dangerous professions in the world, however, global figures of media workers killed prove the opposite. Apart from Covid-19 related deaths, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has recorded 42 killings of journalists and media staff so far in targeted attacks, bomb blasts and cross-fire incidents in 15 countries around the world since the start of the year. The Covid-19 pandemic has just worsened this critical situation, aggravating the safety conditions, endangering the environments in which media workers perform their job and increasing its death toll.
Sadly, this is not a new situation. The IFJ White Paper on Global Journalism launched on 10th December compiles the organization’s list of journalists killed over the last 30 years – a staggering toll of 2658 killed. This equates to around two journalists or media workers being killed every week. This is today’s unacceptable reality for journalists.
The untold story behind these killings is that local journalists are the most targeted and vulnerable. Contrary to what one may think, nearly 75 percent of journalists killed around the world were not killed in crossfire or dangerous assignments in conflict zones. They were instead targeted murders, being killed by a gunman escaping on the back of a motorcycle, shot or stabbed to death near their home or office, or found dead after having been abducted and tortured. That is the case in Mexico, a war-free country, but which holds the second highest record of killed journalists in the period 1990-2020, after Iraq.
Journalists not only risk their lives by doing their job, but also their freedom. At least 235 journalists are currently in prison in 34 countries, in work-related cases based on spurious “anti-state” charges. Here, again, the pandemic has worsened the situation as governments have used measures to fight the virus as an excuse to clamp down on press freedom, heaping more pressure on critical and independent journalism.
Journalists’ killings and arbitrary arrests have had a dramatic impact on media freedom and the people’s right to know. Killing or putting journalists behind bars send a chilling message to colleagues who plan to report on issues the powerful want to hide, creating self-censorship around a topic or a region. This is particularly harmful to democracy in times of a pandemic, when the role of the media as a watchdog of governments’ decisions and transparency is critical.
Violence and authoritarian governments threatened press freedom in 2020, but so too did the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, which had a huge impact on media and their workers. According to an IFJ survey, two-thirds of staff and freelance journalists suffered pay cuts, job losses or lost revenues. The “death toll” of the media is high, especially along local and community outlets, where the pandemic has been almost an extinction event. Without local media, thousands of regions across the world risk turning into information deserts in one of the most difficult moments in recent history.
2020 has been certainly one of the worst for global journalism. But it also has been the year where the profession and its unions reaffirmed their role and importance, demonstrating with fortitude that they can win and protect rights for media workers even in the most critical situations, demanding tech giants pay for using journalistic work for free and stop evading taxes.
IFJ affiliates across the world even did the job the authorities failed to do, such as providing safety trainings and equipment for media workers or legal assistance to protect workers from abusive employers’ decisions.
The media, journalists’ unions and journalists are making extraordinary efforts to protect press freedom and the people’s essential right to be informed. Now it’s time for democratic governments to take bold action and support journalism, ensure media workers’ safety and their labor rights, and introduce a global tax on profiteering tax platforms, raising revenue which should be used to save the media and protect the right to know. 2020 is a turning point for press freedom: either we fight together the consequences of the pandemic or we risk letting press freedom, and therefore our democracies, perish.
Anthony Bellanger is the General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
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