Death and Detention: The Price that Journalists Pay in Democracies

Death and Detention: The Price that Journalists Pay in Democracies

Erika Fedorova
A demonstration against the killing of journalists in Mexico Source: The Knight Foundation

Since 1993, 1,439 journalists have been killed across the world over their work. One hundred fifty-six of these deaths occurred between 2018 and 2019, with an additional 42 deaths in 2020. In the region of West Asia and North Africa, with numbers peaking in Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Afghanistan are countries with the highest number of journalists killed. Although, countries such as Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil, in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as the Philippines and India, have had increased journalist deaths in recent years. Latin America and the Caribbean region represented 40% of killings in 2019; Asia and the Pacific region represented 26%; West Asia and North Africa represented 18%.

Despite being democracies, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines are among the countries with the highest number of journalist deaths. If not killed, many journalists are subject to varying threats and punishments, such as detainment or public defamation.

The majority of journalists’ deaths occur outside of armed conflict and terror attacks. Many journalists are killed at their offices, while working on specific assignments, such as investigative reports, and while covering domestic protests. Some are also killed outside of their specific work context, such as at their home. The victims tend to be local to the area where they are killed. Many are political journalists. Hence, these deaths contribute to the alarming trend of journalist killings by central governments, or government-linked groups, as a result of reporting on internal political crises, such as corruption and human rights abuses.

Linked to this is also the issue of impunity. Rarely do cases of journalist deaths achieve justice for the victims. However, there has been a slight increase in cases being resolved in recent years. In 2018, 11% of journalist deaths were resolved; this rose to 12% in 2019, and 13% in 2020. Initiatives by international organizations, like the UN, have worked to curtail impunity in cases of journalist deaths.

The Press-Safety Paradox

Journalist killings in democracies are violations of those very democracies. The role that journalists perform in democratic societies, including the sharing of political information and scrutiny of public offices, is viewed as crucial to upholding the democratic elements of such societies. Where journalist deaths do occur in such democracies, governments are expected to implement protective instruments that safeguard journalists, allowing them to continue performing their role, and in turn, safeguarding democracy.

Scholarship outlines that countries’ protective mechanisms for journalists, their citizens’ demand for information, and the perception that journalists safeguard democracy, should lead to fewer journalists being killed for their work. However, does this concern the same democracies whose leaders are the ones killing journalists? Jonathan A. Solis points to the press safety paradox. A democracy’s openness and enablement of journalists to speak and disperse information freely heighten the risk of them being harmed/killed for their work. This is because this freedom empowers journalists to investigate sensitive topics, which begin to pertain to issues like government corruption. As a result, journalists are killed for unearthing such issues.

Journalists Killed On The Streets of Mexico

Mexico is one example of a democracy demonstrating the press-safety paradox. The country has become notorious for its journalist deaths. In 2020, Mexico had the highest death toll in the world, with 14 journalists killed. Its democratic image has become tarnished by cases of native journalists being either attacked or killed for their reporting. This work usually involves revealing the practices of organized crime groups however, many have also been found to have been reporting on crime and corruption by the government.

Mexico also has one of the highest rates of impunity over journalists’ deaths in the world. Over 90% of cases are unresolved. This is contributed to by frequently negative sentiment by the government, namely President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Obrador’s administration has attacked the country’s media workers in the past for supposed false reporting. Yet, it has simultaneously recognized violence against journalists in the country, pledging to put an end to it. This has done little to end such violence, however, as cases continue to rise. Moreover, several of these cases still reveal connections between journalist deaths and public officials.

One of the most recent cases occurred in March 2021, when co-founder and editor of La Prensa de Tlaxcala, Alberto Amaro Jordán, was almost driven off a road in Tetla de la Solidaridad. Although not a death, this case reveals the high level of threat Amaro, a journalist, faced at the hands of a public official. The driver of the attacking vehicle was identified as the mayor of Tetla de la Solidaridad: Eleazar Molina Pérez. The incident followed Amaro’s reporting on the mayor in the run-up to elections for federal congress, and his alleged links to corruption in property investment. Once identified, Molina was taken to a local state prosecutor. However, he was released without being charged. Not only does this case depict the danger journalists face for reporting on corruption by elected officials, but it also contributes to the country’s high level of impunity. Although, the attack is relatively recent; organizational pressure may promise accountability.

Protestors holding images of murdered journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea Source: Reuters

A prominent case resurfaced in late 2020. A reporter for the newspaper La Jornada, Miroslava Breach Velducea, was killed by an unknown shooter near her home in Chihuahua, in March 2017. This followed a series of anonymous threats, which Breach received as a result of her reporting work. Authorities linked the attack to a local criminal group, Los Salazar, which Breach was reporting on for trying to get its members elected as mayors around the state. A development in December 2020 revealed that one of the suspects in the murder, Hugo Amed S., former mayor of Chínipas, was arrested. Amed was suspected to have been passing on information about the Breach to the gang, yet again proving the corrupt connections that continue to exist between officials and criminals in the country.

Lydia Cacho underwent severe abuse for her work. In 2005, she published a book revealing a child pornography ring in Mexico, to which she connected several politicians. Cacho was detained in the state of Puebla for alleged defamation. She was tortured while in police custody. In February 2020, Mexican authorities arrested Mario Marín, the governor of Puebla at the time of Cacho’s arrest and a culprit in her treatment. Former Puebla public security secretary Adolfo Karam is also believed to be responsible but has not been arrested yet.

Most journalist deaths in Mexico have, however, been exclusively linked to criminal gangs. One example is the death of Jorge Miguel Armenta Ávalos, who was shot by a group of men in Cajeme. Armenta and his staff had been reporting on violence and murders by criminal gangs in the local area. The Mexican Government, through its Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists, publicly condemned the killing, calling for clarification on the case.

Journalists Detained at Protests in Myanmar

Although not all journalists targeted by governments are killed, many are still prosecuted. The ‘hot spots’ for these arrests in democracies tend to be large-scale protest movements. Recent protests occurring in Myanmar, against the February military coup, have contributed to a worldwide pattern of journalists being arrested for reporting on such events. Myanmar’s military leaders have ordered several journalists to be detained for being present at protests and reporting on them. These detainments have been enacted under laws banning the spreading of ‘false’ information. Such prosecutions have therefore countered the progress that Myanmar has made in parting with its media repression – progress landmarked by initiatives like the 2014 News Media Law, which strengthened rights for media workers and created space for free speech.

Pro-democracy protesters and a journalist run as riot police officers advance them during a rally against the military coup in Yangon
Journalists covering Myanmar protests running from police Source: Reuters

Myanmar has a relatively fresh relationship with democracy, one which became recently destabilized. Nevertheless, the influence of figures like Aung San Suu Kyi has empowered Myanmar’s civilians to enact their democratic rights. With this, a transition into a democratically elected government has also empowered democratic institutions in the country, one of which is journalism.

This empowerment was exemplified at protests across the country, as civilians remained vocal in demanding that the military Government reinstate Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy. Journalists played a crucial role in not only transmitting information about the military coup and ensuing protests across the country and internationally but also strengthening the demands of protestors by giving them a platform. Performing such roles, journalists in the country are still fighting to maintain democratic principles and, in this fight, are empowered by Suu Kyi’s democratic movement. For this reason, many continue to be prosecuted by the country’s military leaders.

Protection Mechanisms

Protection mechanisms for journalists are rooted in democratic principles. The UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity stresses the priority to create a free and safe environment for journalists around the world. An overarching purpose for this is to strengthen democracy. The Plan states a commitment to help countries develop mechanisms to accommodate freedom of expression and freedom of information – two key pillars of a democratic society. It also aims to lower impunity for crimes against journalists. This is outlined by encouraging states to be active in resolving cases of journalist deaths and responsive to the UN in providing answers for these cases. Tackling impunity, therefore, intends to heighten transparency and accountability – not just within a case itself, but also within a government responsible for delivering justice and setting a precedent for a state’s respect for democratic principles.

Through re-asserting the key role that journalism plays in strengthening democratic societies, the Plan shows that attacks on journalists are themselves violations of democratic principles, and their aftermath can be too if not resolved accordingly. Increasingly institutionalized recognition of journalist deaths, with a focus on journalists’ role in cultivating democracy, puts more organizational pressure on governments to respect and protect their country’s journalists. At best, attacks against journalists worldwide will continue to decline. 2020 had the lowest number of journalist deaths, 42; a further decline from 2019’s 57 deaths. However, governments and ruling groups who tend to violate journalistic, and hence democratic, principles may simply become more covert in their methods. Furthermore, as the press-safety paradox highlights, the risk to report remains in a free and open democracy, discouraging more journalists from doing their work.

Although instruments like the UN Plan of Action still raise some doubts about their success in protecting journalists, it was only in recent years that the phenomenon of journalist deaths gained such high-profile institutional recognition. Yet, this has promptly succeeded in raising global awareness of the plight of journalists, the varying contexts in which attacks occur, and the link journalists create to the preservation of democracy. One major contributor to this raised awareness has been the recognition that most journalist attacks occur internally within a state, against local media workers, rather than against foreign reporters covering international cases, which typically gain the most public attention. This, therefore, increases public discourse on the press-safety paradox and how states’ internal democratic instruments are either upheld or violated.

  • Considering there has already been a decrease in journalist deaths over recent years, in combination with increased institutional recognition of the issue and institutional solutions to put an end to it, can we expect attacks against journalists to continue to decline?
    • If so, can this decline be ascribed to the fact that there is increased institutional and public awareness of the issue?
  • Does the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ pose a barrier to increased protections for journalists?

Suggested Readings

International Programme for the Development of Communication (2020). “Director General report on the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity.” UNESCO, 25 November, 2020.

Solis, Jonathan A. (2021). “The press-safety paradox of democracies: regime-type duration and journalist killings.” Foreign Policy Analysis, 17(1), January, 2021.

UN Human Rights Council (2018). “Safety of Journalists – Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.” UN General Assembly, 6 August, 2018.

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Death and Detention: The …

by Erika Fedorova time to read: 8 min