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Journalist killings decline in 2021, threats still alarming

By Sunday Aikulola
14 January 2022   |   3:30 am
Fifty-Five journalists and media workers were killed around the world in 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has reported.

UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay (middle) visits the Oban Biosphere Reserve, in Calabar, Cross River, Nigeria on September 12, 2021. – The Oban Biosphere Reserve is Nigeria’s biggest tropical forest and a paradise of endangered gorillas, elephants and other species southeast of the country. Azoulay is in Nigeria to open the 33rd UNESCO ‘Human and Biosphere’ conference in Abuja with President Muhammadu Buhari. (Photo by Kola Sulaimon / AFP)

Fifty-Five journalists and media workers were killed around the world in 2021, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has reported. This is the lowest death toll in over a decade. However, impunity for these crimes remains widespread and journalists still face a huge number of risks.

“Once again in 2021, far too many journalists paid the ultimate price to bring truth to light. Right now, the world needs independent, factual information more than ever. We must do more to ensure that those who work tirelessly to provide this can do so without fear,” Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO Director-General, said.

The UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists collected 55 journalist killings in 2021. Two-third of these killings were in countries not experiencing armed conflict, “showing the continued risks faced by journalists in their daily reporting to expose wrongdoing,” UNESCO said in a statement.

“This marks a complete reversal of the situation just a few years ago, in 2013, when two-thirds of killings took place in countries in conflict.”

The majority of deaths in 2021 were in just two regions – the Asia-Pacific, with 23 killings, and Latin America and the Caribbean, with 14.

If the number of journalist killings is at its lowest in over a decade, impunity for these crimes remains alarmingly widespread: UNESCO’s data showed that 87 per cent of all journalist killings since 2006 are still unresolved.

Journalists worldwide also continue to be subject to high rates of imprisonment, physical attack, intimidation and harassment, including when covering protests. Women journalists especially face a shocking prevalence of harassment online – a report released by UNESCO in April showed nearly three quarters of surveyed women journalists had experienced online violence linked to their work.

UNESCO is the United Nations agency with a global mandate to ensure freedom of expression and the safety of journalists worldwide and coordinates the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, which is marking its 10th anniversary this year.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), in its earlier report, noted that 45 journalists were killed worldwide. However, IFJ agreed with UNESCO that it was “one of the lowest death tolls” it had recorded for any year.

“While this decrease is welcome news, it is small comfort in the face of continued violence,” IFJ said in a statement. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) gave a similar toll of 46 killings of journalists two weeks ago, also noting it as its lowest-ever since starting its tallies in 1995.

The IFJ added that media workers “more often than not are killed for exposing corruption, crime and abuse of power in their communities, cities and countries”.

IFJ said, “the risks associated with armed conflict have reduced in recent years” due to less journalists being able to report on the ground.

It added, however, “the threats of crime gang and drug cartels’ rule from the slums in Mexico to the streets of European cities in Greece and the Netherlands continue to increase”.

IFJ Secretary-General Anthony Bellanger reiterated the organisation’s support for a United Nations convention for the protection of journalists to “ensure accountability for journalists’ killings”.

The year 2021 also saw a crackdown on journalists. According to a new report from the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the number of journalists behind bars reached a global high in 2021. CPJ said 293 reporters were imprisoned worldwide as of December 1, 2021.

The organisation systematically condemns every journalist killing and calls upon the authorities to conduct a full investigation, provides training for journalists and judicial actors, works with governments to develop supportive policies and laws, and raises global awareness through events such as World Press Freedom Day, celebrated yearly on May 3.

Meanwhile, UNESCO and UN System Staff College have agreed to support UN field staff in promoting freedom of expression and safety of journalists

They signed an agreement to upscale the UN-wide understanding of the rights to freedom of expression, access to information and safety of journalists.

The two UN entities, respectively specialised in training UN staff (UNSSC), and in promoting the free flow of information and safety of journalists (UNESCO) have joined hands within the framework of the human rights-based approach (HRBA), which is one of the six Guiding Principles of the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework.

The agreement, which extends to August 2023, follows the call by the UN Secretary General, who had recommended to “scale up the UN awareness and actions to prevent and address attacks against journalists and media workers and consider integrating risks faced by them into relevant UN strategies at national and regional levels”. Furthermore, the outcomes of the joint action will advance progress on SDG target 16.10 and the implementation of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity launched in 2012 calling on States to set up mechanisms for the prevention and punishment of attacks on journalists.

Through a self-paced online course, in-person workshops, webinars, advocacy and the championing of UNESCO resources, UN staff members, including Resident Coordinators and their offices, in-country representatives of agencies, and UN Human Rights advisors in the field will strengthen their knowledge on the importance of these fundamental rights and other related issues, such as countering hate speech and disinformation, the role of media during elections, and media’s role in peace building and countering conflict, and the complementarity of UNESCO’s mandate with the various mandates within the United Nations.

This initiative will further reinforce the Dutch-initiated Global Drive on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists launched at the 2020 World Press Freedom Day conference in The Hague where The Netherlands announced €7 million to promote media freedom and the safety of journalists worldwide. Through a cooperation between UNESCO and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) the Global Drive aims at fostering an independent and free media and public recognition of the value of access to information, and contributing to ending impunity for attacks against journalists, including a particular focus on women journalists.

Made possible within the framework of UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists, this agreement will help ensure the Organization’s mandate is better reflected in UN country planning, such as the UN Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework, as well as in response plans to crises.

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