The number of journalists murdered in retaliation for their work more than doubled in 2020, as criminal gangs and militant groups targeted reporters working in violent but democratic nations.
Globally, at least 30 journalists were killed in 2020; 21 of those were singled out for murder in retaliation for their work, a jump from the previous year’s 10 murders, while others were killed in combat or crossfire or on another assignment that turned dangerous. One media worker was also killed. Mexico, Afghanistan, and the Philippines had the most retaliatory killings.
CPJ is still investigating the deaths of 15 other journalists worldwide to determine whether journalism was the motive. The numbers reflect the period from January 1 to December 15, 2020, and the total killings compare with 26 journalists killed with a confirmed motive in all of 2019. Last year’s number was the lowest total killings in CPJ’s records since 2000.
While murders rose in 2020, the number of combat-related deaths—three—dropped to the lowest level since 2000, as the intensity of conflicts in the Middle East abated and the COVID-19 pandemic dominated media attention and made it difficult for journalists to travel. All three of the journalists were killed documenting the continuing conflict near Idlib in northern Syria, and perished in airstrikes by suspected Russian forces allied with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In Mexico, at least four journalists were targeted for murder in 2020, and one more was gunned down while reporting from a crime scene; CPJ is investigating the motive in at least four other journalist deaths. Mexico has long been the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere for the press, which operates amid a complex web of criminal, drug-trafficking gangs and entrenched official corruption.
When he took office in December 2018, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged to take concrete steps to end violence against the press and impunity for journalist murders. Yet this cycle continues unabated, as CPJ found in its most recent Global Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are murdered and their killers go free. In the vast majority of murder cases, no suspect has been convicted, according to CPJ research, and the masterminds remain free. López Obrador has only rarely engaged with CPJ and other press freedom and civil society organizations, and has denigrated Mexico’s media in his daily early-morning press conferences, taking a page from the playbook of U.S. President Donald Trump—an attitude viewed with dismay by the country’s journalist community in light of the dangers they face.
At least two of the journalists murdered in 2020 were enrolled in the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a program to provide safety measures to journalists under threat, and in both cases, their assigned bodyguards were also killed—highlighting the weakness of the mechanism. In 2020, Mexico’s Congress moved toward eliminating the federal trust fund through which the protective measures are financed, and transferring control of those funds directly to the Secretariat of the Interior, leaving them vulnerable to political whims and the trading of favors.
One of the journalists enrolled in the protection mechanism was Pablo Morrugares. Following his August murder—in which he was gunned down with his bodyguard, inside his own restaurant in Iguala, in the southern state of Guerrero—an organized crime group sent threats to a large group of journalists in the city. In October, the journalists wrote an open letter to Mexican authorities, including López Obrador, detailing the threats and pleading for protection. One of the journalists told CPJ, “I’ve never before seen [them] attack and harass the media the way they do now.”
In the Philippines, at least three journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2020, despite the efforts of the Presidential Task Force for Media Security, a state body that President Rodrigo Duterte created four years ago to solve media killings. Duterte and his government claimed to have made progress in combating impunity, but in reality have fallen short, failing to prosecute the masterminds of murders and—like López Obrador—undermining the press with hostile rhetoric, most notably by Duterte himself.
In Honduras, where violence and threats to the media from organized crime and weak rule of law have led to a climate of fear and self-censorship, at least two journalists were murdered in 2020, and CPJ is investigating the motive in another killing.
Despite the reduction in crossfire-related killings, countries in conflict remain extremely dangerous for the media. Militant groups targeted at least four journalists for murder in retaliation for their work in Afghanistan, a significant jump after no killings were reported in 2019. In early December, Malalai Maiwand, a reporter at Enikass Radio and TV in Nangarhar province, was gunned down on her way to work, along with her driver, Mohammad Tahir. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack, which came as representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban militant group agreed to a framework to move forward with peace talks in Qatar.
In a case of direct and public killing of a journalist by a government, on December 12 Iran executed journalist Roohallah Zam by hanging after sentencing him to death. Zam’s website and Telegram channel, Amad News—which he ran from exile—had reported critically on Iranian officials and shared the timings and locations of protests in 2017; Telegram shut down the channel in late 2017, but the account later reemerged under a different name. CPJ classifies Zam’s killing as a murder, based on methodology, that defines murder as the targeted killing of a journalist in direct reprisal for their work. Iranian intelligence agents detained Zam in Iraq in October 2019 and took him to Iran, according to CPJ research; authorities aired a video of him apologizing on a state television. He was convicted and sentenced to death in June on 17 charges including espionage, spreading false news abroad, and insulting Islamic values and the supreme leader; the sentence was confirmed on December 8. In announcing his execution, Iranian state media referred to Zam as “the leader of the riots,” referring to protests in the country in 2017, according to The Associated Press.
Iran has long used harsh prison sentences to censor the press, and had 15 journalists in jail, including Zam, at the time of CPJ’s December 1, 2020 prison census. CPJ’s records count four other journalists killed in Iran since 1992; three of those died while in government custody or of injuries suffered during detention.
The global climate of impunity and dangerous anti-press rhetoric comes amid the U.S.’s abdication of global leadership on the defense of press freedom under President Trump. Instead of defending journalists and press freedom in principle, the Trump administration’s approach is opportunistic: speaking out about Iran’s actions but glaringly failing to condemn the Saudi government and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for their role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is the most egregious example. Last month, CPJ published a proposal to the incoming Biden administration on restoring U.S. leadership, including appointing a special presidential envoy for press freedom who would be empowered to speak out about violations around the world; rebuilding State Department institutions that have traditionally supported press freedom; and sending a directive to U.S. embassies that press freedom is a foreign policy priority.
The year 2020 also saw widespread global political upheaval, and journalists faced violence covering these events. In Iraq, Dijlah TV reporter Ahmed Abdul Samad and camera operator Safaa Ghali were shot dead in January while covering protests in the southern Iraqi city of Basra against lack of basic services, unemployment, and government corruption. And Nigerian journalist Onifade Emmanuel Pelumi was killed while reporting on unrest in Ikeja, in southwestern Lagos state. A record number of journalists were jailed because of their work in 2020, as governments cracked down on coverage of COVID-19 or attempted to suppress reporting on political unrest, according to CPJ research.
The COVID-19 pandemic also forced journalists to constantly adapt to evolving safety advice and restrictions on travel and movement set by local authorities. In addition to the impact on the way reporters and photojournalists do their jobs as has documented, the virus posed extreme health risks to those arrested because of their work. At least two journalists died after contracting the coronavirus in custody—David Romero in Honduras and Mohamed Monir in Egypt—while a third, CPJ’s 2012 International Press Freedom Awardee Azimjon Askarov, died of illness his family suspected to be COVID-19 while serving a life sentence in Kyrgyzstan. CPJ’s list of journalists killed does not include those who died of illness.
Other findings from CPJ’s research include:
- Criminal groups were the most frequently suspected killers of journalists in 2020, while politics was the most dangerous beat.
- Two of the journalists killed Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez in Mexico and Malalai Maiwand in Afghanistan, were female.
- One media worker was killed, when Enikass Radio and TV driver Mohammad Tahir, was killed along with Maiwand in Afghanistan. CPJ first began documenting the killings of these vital industry employees, who also include translators, fixers, and administrative workers, in 2003.
- Photojournalist Christoff Griffith, who was killed in June while covering a crime scene by the suspected perpetrator, was the first journalist CPJ recorded as killed in relation to his work in Barbados.
CPJ began compiling detailed records on all journalist deaths in 1992. CPJ staff members independently investigate and verify the circumstances behind each death. CPJ considers a case work-related only when its staff is reasonably certain that a journalist was killed in direct reprisal for his or her work; in combat-related crossfire; or while carrying out a dangerous assignment such as covering a protest that turns violent.
If the motives in a killing are unclear, but it is possible that a journalist died in relation to his or her work, CPJ classifies the case as “unconfirmed” and continues to investigate.
CPJ’s list does not include journalists who died of illness or were killed in car or plane accidents unless the crash was caused by hostile action. Other press organizations using different criteria cite different numbers of deaths.
CPJ’s database of journalists killed in 2020 includes capsule reports on each victim and filters for examining trends in the data. CPJ maintains a database of all journalists killed since 1992 and those who have gone missing or are imprisoned for their work.
Jennifer Dunham is CPJ’s deputy editorial director. Prior to joining CPJ, she was research director for Freedom House’s Freedom in the World and Freedom of the Press reports.