WASHINGTON - The number of journalists murdered for their work doubled in 2020, as criminal gangs and militant groups sought to silence reporting with violence, a new report says.
At least 30 journalists were killed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15, including 21 who were murdered — up from 10 in 2019 — and others who were killed in crossfire or while on assignments, the report by press freedom organization the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found.
Mexico was the deadliest country, followed closely by Syria, Afghanistan and the Philippines. The figures do not include the assassination Monday of a prominent Afghan journalist in eastern Ghazni province.
Rahmatullah Nikzad, who was head of a local press union, is the fifth journalist to be killed in Afghanistan in the past two months. The attacks also claimed the life of Elyas Dayee, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Afghan service.
Cartels, criminal groups and militants in democratic but violent countries account for the doubling of murders in 2020, CPJ found.
Two of the deadliest countries — Mexico and the Philippines — have protection mechanisms in place that are supposed to improve journalist safety.
A failure to secure prosecutions in journalist killings adds to the problem, said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at CPJ.
“Nobody is typically held accountable, and there are not meaningful investigations into a lot of these murders,” Radsch said. “It just sends a signal that reporters are expendable, and you don't really need to worry because no one's going to hold you accountable.”
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which also documents media killings, said Mexico and the Philippines have consistently topped the list of most dangerous countries for journalists. Since 1990, 2,658 journalists have been killed, 175 in Mexico and 159 in the Philippines, said the IFJ, which uses a different methodology to track deaths.
The co-chairs of the Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus — Democrat Adam Schiff of California and Republican Steve Chabot of Ohio — said they were “deeply troubled” by the December 11 IFJ "White Paper on Global Journalism," which examined three decades of data.
“Media freedom is critical to hold governments accountable to their citizens,” the congressmen said in a joint statement.
In Mexico, at least four journalists were targeted for murder in 2020. Another journalist was shot while reporting from a crime scene. CPJ is investigating whether journalism was a motive in four other cases.
Two of those murdered in 2020 had been enrolled in the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, a program providing safety measures to journalists under threat. Their bodyguards were also killed.
Rasch said the mechanism is not effective and that violence against the press has resulted in “endemic” impunity. The situation is most dangerous for reporters covering police, drug violence and crime.
Ernest Sagaga, head of human rights and safety at IFJ, agreed.
“There is no political will to go after those people who make those threats and actually kill journalists. It's not enough to have mechanisms. It's very important to pursue those who make threats,” Sagaga said.
Cartel groups and drug barons in Mexico are behind “the reign of terror and violence,” Sagaga said, but they are not solely to blame, because of collusion between these organized groups and police forces.
Though Mexico set up an official office for prosecutors investigating crimes against the press, they do not have enough funding to do their job, Sagaga said.
The Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., has not responded to VOA’s request for comment.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador pledged to end violence when he took office in 2018. Some progress in securing justice was made in 2020, including the arrest of a suspect in the 2017 killing of La Jornada reporter Miroslava Breach Velducea. But such developments are not enough and not systemic, CPJ’s Radsch said.
The Philippines, where CPJ says at least three journalists were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2020, also has systems in place to improve safety. The Presidential Task Force on Media Security was created four years ago to investigate media killings.
But “there needs to be a rapid, thorough, independent investigation into these types of killings,” Radsch said.
Not only does impunity in journalist killings validate attempts to silence the press, it sends a chilling signal to reporters that can last for years, she said.
“A single murder can have a profound yearslong impact on how reporters do their jobs,” Radsch said. “They are deeply missed by their communities and their families, as well.”
Sagaga of IFJ said when journalists are silenced, all of society misses out.
“We need people to be brave enough to continue exposing corruption, exposing crime,” he said.
U.S. lawmakers have introduced draft legislation that would hold countries that commit rights abuses against journalists accountable via sanctions and restrictions on foreign aid.
The Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act was named in honor of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Khashoggi who was killed in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
“We must ensure that journalists in the United States and around the world are able to do their jobs without fear of harm,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who proposed the bill with her Democratic colleague Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. “It is unacceptable to suppress, imprison and violently target the press, and the Jamal Khashoggi Act would ensure that the United States holds foreign governments who attempt to do so accountable.”