A Grim Year for the Safety of Journalists around the World

At GW’s annual Walter Roberts Lecture, the president of the Committee to Protect Journalists said many in the profession are under increasing attack.

December 9, 2022

Jodie Ginsbert

Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists, was guest speaker at the Annual Walter R. Roberts Lecture. (Jordan Tovin/GW Today)

By B.L. Wilson

The world has become less safe for journalists. More are being jailed, killed and threatened in authoritarian and democratic countries alike around the world, according to Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), who spoke on “Defending Press Freedom: Protecting Journalists Around the World” at the George Washington University.

“This is the worst year on record for journalists’ imprisonment, with over 300 journalists in jail. Iran, Thailand, Myanmar and Turkey are among the worst offenders,” she said. “CPJ has also documented more than 60 journalists and media workers killed so far this year. Some 15 were killed in Ukraine covering the Russian invasion, but 13 were killed in Mexico, a country not at war.”

The Annual Walter R. Roberts Lecture Tuesday evening hosted by the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications (IPDGC) in collaboration with the School of Media and Public Affairs and the Elliott School of International Affairs featured Ginsberg as guest speaker.

IPDGC Director William Youmans said the lecture is a tribute to Walter Roberts for whom “media and the free flow of ideas was central to his career.” Roberts worked in international broadcasting and served in public affairs at American embassies and the United States mission to the United Nations. In retirement, Roberts taught a GW course in diplomacy and information for 10 years.

Elliott School Dean Alyssa Ayres, who introduced Ginsberg, noted that “the open flow of creditable information is essential to the conduct of international affairs.”

“We understand the world around us and the events that affect us through journalism, whether it is reporting from the frontlines of war, humanitarian crises, climate disasters or even a sensitive negotiation that has a potential to affect livelihoods,” Ayres said. “CPJ monitors and highlights acts that can silence journalists and the reporting they do.”

Despite great advances in democracy since the fall of the Berlin Wall, “a free and independent media is still elusive to many,” Ginsberg said. “Not only that, but the space for independent media is shrinking rapidly and as that space narrows, the risks to journalists increase.”

She said there are interlocking reasons for the increase in attacks on journalists, the first being “a decline in democracy,” a reversal of the gains made after the end of the Cold War. She said Freedom House, a nonprofit group that advocates for political freedom, has found since 2006 a growing number of non-free countries and a decline in freedom not only in authoritarian countries such as China, Belarus and Venezuela, but also in democracies including the United States and India. Political instability in places such as Ukraine, Myanmar, Syria and Afghanistan are contributing to “grim” scenarios, such as the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al Jazeera journalist, while reporting on an Israeli military raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the West Bank.

“Democratic laws, fair and free elections, a robust judiciary and in particular a free press are facing renewed pressure. Often, this starts with those in power denigrating the media,” Ginsberg said, citing the examples of former President Donald Trump and Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsanaro who labeled the media as enemies of the people and “fake news” or called “dirty” prostitutes by Slovakian President Robert Pico.  The behavior emboldens the public, she said, to criticize the media in social media and at political and protest rallies and “not just to critique it but threaten it.”

 The hostile media environment has been linked to the killings of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in 2018; the slaying of Jeff German in Las Vegas this year, allegedly by an official whose corruption he had reported on; and the fatal shooting of Rafael Emiro Moreno Garavito, director of the independent Columbian online news outlet Voces de Cordoba for reporting on political corruption and drug trafficking. The violence can spill over, resulting in attacks on those working alongside journalists as translators and intermediaries who are not afforded the same protections as the media.

The attacks have also come with a degree of impunity over the past decade. CPJ found that in nearly 80 percent of the 263 cases of journalists killed in retaliation for their work globally the perpetrators faced no punishment.

In other attempts to silence journalists, editors and media leaders in the Philippines, Guatemala and Hong Kong were charged with tax evasion, money laundering and embezzlement that forced them to shut down, she noted.

Other tactics have included lawsuits and harassment on social media, often targeting Blacks, Arabs, Indigenous groups and women, that has led to high rates of mental depression and many reporters leaving journalism.

During the Q & A, SMPA Director Silvio Waisbord asked Ginsberg how the Committee to Protect Journalists handles these multipronged threats involving multiple actors and multiple states.

She said CPJ relies on a network of reporters and researchers to investigate the attacks. Advocacy is also key and can be as simple as asking a local government to release a journalist or larger campaigns and pushing governments to develop systematic measures to protect journalists--special visas, for example, to get journalists to some place safe. The committee also assists journalists by making them aware of threats, such as spyware that tracks their movement, by informing them of their legal rights and funding support for health and trauma care.