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The murder of journalists - a potent precursor of wider political repression

Researchers from the EU-funded RATE project have studied more than one thousand press corps deaths across the world between 2002 and 2013. The results paint a stark warning that the deaths of journalists signal a dangerous slide away from human rights adherence and are a potent sign of growing political repression.
The murder of journalists - a potent precursor of wider political repression
An independent press is a cornerstone of democratic accountability, the rule of law and a benchmark for ensuring human rights protection. All too often repressive governments have ordered the targeting of journalists when their reporting offends them or contradicts their policies, not only silencing criticism but also halting the free-flow of information. In 2015 alone, over 70 journalists were killed, most reporting about political issues, in countries as diverse as Ukraine, Turkey and Kenya.

Analysing a violent trend

Published in the ‘Journal of Peace Research’, the RATE (Repression and the Escalation of Conflict) project team has collected and analysed data on the killings of over 1 300 journalists and media personnel from across the globe between 2002 and 2013 to better understand whether a tangible link exists between violence against the press and wider political repression.

Their results highlight that amongst the most dangerous countries for journalists are Syria and Iraq, which throughout the period studied have experienced civil war and political chaos. Overall, 162 (Syria) and 287 (Iraq) journalists were targeted. However, journalists are not only attacked in countries experiencing civil war – roughly one third of all killings between 2002 and 2013 occurred in countries that were not embroiled in conflict. Between 2002 and 2003 alone, members of the press corps were killed in over 80 countries.

Journalists are a big target in Mexico, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for members of the press. Other countries that experienced significant violence against journalists include Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal and Egypt. Overall, many countries where journalists have perished aren’t considered particularly brutal or repressive regimes. Political imprisonment, murder and execution are indeed extensive in these countries but have not expanded to the whole population.

A warning sign of worse to come

Against the backdrop of these alarming figures, the researchers argue that the killing of journalists acts as a precursor for worsening state-sponsored political repression – murdering even a single journalist generally signals instability and growing tension, followed by increasingly invasive and harsher government behaviour. This is highlighted by the fact that ‘foreign’ journalists are rarely targeted, with local – and consequently more vulnerable – reporters bearing the brunt of state repression. The research also reports that those responsible for the killing are often never identified and justice rarely served.

In particular, tracking repression against the press is particularly useful for a ‘middling’ group of countries that are neither solid liberal democracies with a long tradition of press freedom but can equally not be classed as countries that are renowned for their brutality and repression. As the researchers point out, a country such as Australia or Norway would not be expected to suddenly turn on its press, nor would a repressive country, such as Sudan or North Korea, be expected to suddenly begin allowing greater openness and press freedom.

Regardless of other factors, such as economic development and democratisation, violence against the press is a vital clue on whether these middling countries are beginning to backslide on their commitment to wider human rights protections. In essence, the researchers argue, a stronger economy is unlikely to make up for the risk presented when a journalist is murdered. Countries they highlight as falling within this category where repression of the press would be an important warning signal include Peru, Sierra Leone, Malaysia and Tanzania.

Taking appropriate action

However, it is not all doom and gloom – when journalists are attacked or murdered in this group of countries, the warning it sounds should encourage the international community to take immediate action. The research team argues that policy initiatives are likely to have the biggest impact on the moderately repressive countries, as achieving improvements in highly repressive countries is extremely challenging.

The RATE project, based at the University of Mannheim, Germany, is due to end in January 2019 and has received nearly EUR 1.5 million in EU funding.

For more information, please see:
project website

Source: Based on media reports and information from the project

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