Commentary: Record number of journalists have died in 2012

The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)December 8, 2012 

They call it the Death Watch. The International Press Institute, which is based in Austria, for 15 years has tracked the number of professional journalists around the world killed on the job.

With a month to go in 2012, the institute says 123 journalists have been killed this year. That breaks the old, grisly record of 110 who died in 2009.

Journalists sometimes die while traveling or covering combat. But the vast majority killed this year were targeted for death, said Naomi Hunt, senior press freedom adviser for the institute.

“It is widely accepted that journalist killings continue because the killers get away with it and gangs, armed militias and terrorist organizations and individual criminals all enjoy broad impunity,” Hunt said via email. “Journalists are at the most risk in countries where the government is unwilling or unable to put a stop to the killings.”

Controlling information flow

When journalists are murdered, Hunt said, it is often to kill a story or “to control the flow of information and the flow of spin.” This can cause other journalists to stop doing their jobs. For example, in some parts of Mexico where drug violence is rampant, several newspapers no longer cover crime stories for fear of retaliation.

The reported rise in journalist deaths comes as overall war deaths have declined.

It might not seem like it – because of better communication and increased war reporting – but war deaths have declined steeply, according to a 2011 article in Foreign Policy magazine by Joshua S. Goldstein, professor emeritus of international relations at American University.

The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than in any decade of the last 100 years, Goldstein reported. During the Cold War (1950 to 1989), war-related violence caused 180,000 deaths a year. In the last decade, about 55,000 people a year were killed during war. If you factor in the growing global population, that decline is even sharper.

“Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace,” Goldstein wrote.

But there hasn’t been a corresponding decline in the deaths of journalists. About 55 journalists a year were killed from 2000 to 2002. Since 2009, more than a 100 journalists a year have died.

Technology changes views

Perhaps as technology has improved and the amount of information has increased, the terrorists, thugs, drug runners and corrupt governments have become more desperate to stop reports about who they are and what they do. It’s also possible that improvements to communications technology means the International Press Institute is getting a more accurate tally of the deaths.

This year, the three most deadly countries for journalists are:

• Syria, 36 deaths (about 30 percent of journalist deaths worldwide). In its deadly civil war, both sides are fighting not just for territory but for local and international opinion.

• Somalia, 16 deaths. The battle between an Islamist insurgent group and a fragile government has created lawlessness throughout this country in eastern Africa.

• Mexico, seven deaths. Journalists are vulnerable to attacks from drug cartels or corrupt public officials beholden to the cartels.

Democracies almost never go to war with each other. Political scientists Bruce Russett (Yale) and John Oneal (Alabama) say democracy, trade and membership in international organizations contribute to peace. A thriving community of journalists strengthens democracy. Which is why the bad guys want journalists dead.

Reach John Drescher at jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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