2019 has seen a significant drop in the number of journalists being killed—49 as against the annual average of 80 journalists killed for the past two decades. The annual report by Reporters Without Borders, known better by their French initials RSF (Reporters Sans Frontières), termed this figure “historically low”.
2019 also marks three years of the detention of Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been picked up and incarcerated since December 20, 2016, by Egypt’s el-Sisi regime. And Hussein has been held in sordid conditions—he has suffered a broken arm and has been denied passable treatment—without charges or trial, in gross violation of international laws. The law of Egypt itself sets a maximum of 620 days of pretrial detention for people under investigation for felony. So, by which law is he being held and why?
While the former has no answer, the latter can be attributed to Hussein’s courage to shine light on the misdeeds of the el-Sisi administration. And if this can happen to an Al Jazeera journalist—an esteemed international broadcaster—one wonders what happens to journalists who work for local newspapers; even worse, what happens to those working as freelancers?
2019 is also the year that witnessed the sentencing of the killers of dissenting Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, in which five people had been awarded the death sentence, with another three sentenced to jail terms, while one of the prime suspects was allowed to go scot-free! Saud al-Qahtani, who along with 16 other Saudis had been sanctioned by the US last year for their alleged role in the killing, is now a free man, acquitted of all charges.
But this should come as no surprise because all the while the international governments had been condemning the Saudis for the gruesome murder of the journalist inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—CIA suggested the involvement of top Saudi leadership in the murder—the US along with other powerful countries kept selling weapons to the Saudis to pursue the war in Yemen.
And a closer look at the RSF report figures suggest that the decline in the number of journalists killed in 2019 can be, to some extent, attributed to the lesser number of journalists killed while covering war this year. Numbers from Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen suggest that journalist casualties in these three countries combined stood at 17 this year—half of the 34 from 2018.
But is this good news? Perhaps.
RSF spokeswoman Juliane Matthey attributed this decline in number to certain factors, such as better training of journalists who cover war. Regarding the sharp decline in the number of journalists killed in Yemen in particular—from 10 in 2018 to two in 2019—, Matthey said, “But that is partly because many journalists have changed their job because of the unstable situation”. According to RSF, a journalist has resorted to working as a server at an eatery in the capital, Sanaa; while another has become an ice-cream vendor.
But what is more alarming is that while the number of journalists killed in warzones had decreased, journalism in “countries at peace” has become more precarious than ever.
In 2019 more journalists—59 percent—have been killed in these “countries at peace”. In Mexico alone 10 journalists had been killed in 2019, the same number as last year. And although Mexico is not a war zone, it is riddled in wars between drug cartels.
And journalists being killed deliberately for their work has gone up by two percent, according to the RSF report. Meaning more journalists are now at risk of being targeted and killed on the account of their profession.
And detention of journalists has also seen an increase in 2019. With 389 journalists currently in held various prisons by suppressive governments a worrying trend is emerging—of incarceration and punishment of journalists for unearthing the unpleasant.
While dictators in the guise of “elected leaders” like el-Sisi of Egypt, rough handle journalists and detain them without any charge, simply on the strength of their muscle power; others more tactful, like Russia, detain journalists on flimsy charges and let them perish in jails. And in detention centres in China and Turkey a good number of journalists have been held for their dissenting voices. And in the face of such persecution, journalists like Levent Kenez had to seek shelter in other countries.
The more polished ones like Viktor Orban of Hungary have adopted creative means to manhandle free press—creating a government media monopoly. According to a report by Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation, in Hungary “nearly 80 percent of the media are owned by government allies.” The same tactic had also been used by Aleksandar Vucic’s of Serbia.
And in other, more democratic countries such as India and Bangladesh, the governments have taken a more free-market approach to stifle journalistic dissent. According to a report by Al Jazeera’s Sohail Rahman, earlier this year in Kashmir, the Indian government had stopped advertising in two major newspapers without citing any reason. As much as 50 percent of the revenues for these papers came from government advertisement and announcement.
The government in Bangladesh went one step ahead and as early as 2015 had outrightly asked big corporations, including telecom and consumer goods companies to “restrict” their advertising in two of the mainstream newspapers. To this day, the two newspapers are bearing the financial brunt of this government move.
And in the US the very foundation of journalism has been brought into question by the president, who terms any news unflattering to him “fake news”. And in a more sinister narrative, the US president has branded journalists “enemy of the people”—a tag that has been previously used by repressors like Stalin and the Third Reich to punish dissent.
And amidst all these, journalism today remains as precarious a profession as ever—be it in a democratic “country at peace” or a repressive one like Turkmenistan, which according to the RFS Press Freedom Index, has the most repressive media environment in the world.
And journalists will keep facing persecution until the true killers of Jamal Khashoggi, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Mena Mangal and Ján Kuciak are punished; until Mahmoud Hussein is released from detention; until Levent Kenez is allowed to go back to Turkey and write without fear of repercussions; until Kashmir’s Qazi Shibli’s whereabouts is made known.
Do world leaders have the courage to reinforce such freedom of press?
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem