Understanding Journalist Killings as Acts of Localized Repression

By Anita Gohdes

The Committee to Protect Journalists has been alarming the public for the past few years: journalists are being killed in increasing numbers and the vast majority of perpetrators continue to go unpunished. Why are journalists killed, and how can we understand the political context in which these egregious murders occur? For the past three years, Sabine Carey and I have been collecting information on the characteristics of journalist killings across the world. In particular, we are interested in understanding how journalist killings fit into more general politics. Here I will highlight two main insights the data has provided: 1) The killing of journalists is a manifestation of localized repression, and 2) that most journalists are killed in democratic countries with low levels of judicial accountability.

Common understandings of journalist killings usually relate to two scenarios: One is of the international journalist who is killed covering violent events in conflict zones, such as longtime BBC war reporter Terry Lloyd, who was killed while reporting on the 2003 Iraq invasion. The other is of prominent opposition journalists intentionally killed by autocratic regimes, such as the killing of the independent journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Russia in 2006. These incidents are horrifying and display in different ways the dangers members of the press are exposed to through the work they do. But when looking at journalists killed between 2002 and 2016 across the world, we find that these cases are rather the exception than the rule.

First, the data show that most journalists are killed outside of major episodes of war. Furthermore, nine out of ten journalists killed in the past 15 years were working in their own country for news organizations that weren’t read by the international community. While perpetrator information is sparse, the data indicate that perpetrators were usually tied to local authorities, such as mayors or local politicians. And despite the fact that most journalists operate close to the center of political power, three out of four journalists are killed outside of capital cities. When excluding episodes of major conflict, even fewer are killed in the center of power.

Second, we find that most journalists are killed in countries that have at least semi-functioning democratic institutions. There are a number of reasons for this. One reason is that countries with democratic or semi-democratic systems usually have a less repressive media system, so that more journalists are able to critically report on political events and business dealings. In countries with highly restrictive media landscapes legal restrictions are usually already in place that allow state officials to prevent unfavorable stories from being published. A further reason is that politicians are more likely to care about their public image in systems where their political survival is tied to popular support. Why would politicians care about scandals uncovered by journalists if they knew their position was safe, no matter how badly they behave? In contrast, state officials who fear for their status, for example in upcoming elections, will be more motivated to find ways to silence journalists who are in the process of investigating their transgressions.

However, democratic institutions alone do not predict the killings of journalists, and clearly there are many democratic countries in which the physical integrity of journalists is not under constant attack. While the fear of suffering repercussions from a tainted public image may motivate state officials to “silence” members of the press through lethal violence, the probability of getting away with it plays heavily into this calculation. We find that where local authorities fear for their public image, for example because a corruption scandal may jeopardize their political seat in an upcoming election, and where attacking a member of the press to kill a scandalous news story is likely to go unpunished, journalists are in grave danger of being killed. As such we find that countries with democratic institutions that also exhibit high levels of judicial corruption as well as low levels of judicial accountability present the most dangerous environments for journalists to work in. Furthermore, journalists working for national and regional news outlets are targeted particularly often. Precisely because the death of a local, less well-known journalist is less likely to generate attention do these members of the press face particularly high threats.

What can we learn from these findings? The fact that most journalists killed between 2002 and 2016 were working locally for local news outlets suggests that lethal attacks on the press need to be understood as a manifestation of local level repression. Thus, even if high ranking politicians condemn such acts of violence, and vow to work on ensuring media freedom, such killings are likely to continue as long as those ordering the killings are not held accountable. On the contrary, increasing provisions for media freedom and transparency at the national level without working towards increased local-level accountability may in fact exacerbate the danger local level journalists face in their day-to-day work. Policies geared towards supporting countries in their quest to building a stronger and investigative media apparatus need to therefore necessarily include strategies for combating impunity and improving accountability of local-level politicians in the same process.

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