Journalists on the front lines of global assault

Cathal Gilbert, David Kode and Teldah Mawarire

With reporters under attack the world over, it is imperative that citizens rally to protect press freedom.

We live in a time when hard-won human rights protections are at risk of being swept aside by a rising tide of authoritarianism, fear mongering and xenophobia. The resulting global assault on fundamental civic freedoms is, in turn, devastating press freedom and exposing an increasing number of journalists to the threat of censure, the loss of livelihood and physical attack.

The latest research by global civil society alliance Civicus shows that attacks on journalists are now a strikingly common feature of attempts by states, private companies and others to curtail criticism or reporting that exposes uncomfortable truths.

These findings also help us to understand why journalists are being attacked.

Currently, 23% of attacks on journalists reported on the Civicus Monitor – a web platform that provides updated information on citizen activism worldwide – are connected to reporting on politics. This is a troubling finding because without a free media to report on this subject, we cannot know if our elected leaders are acting in the best interests of the public.

Reporting on protests (18% of reports), exposing corruption (15%) and covering conflict (15%) are also high-risk endeavours for journalists.


The case involving Sunday Times investigative reporter Mzilikazi wa Afrika is indicative of these trends and the challenges faced by journalists in South Africa and on the African continent. He and his family are under 24-hour security protection after he received death threats for an investigative article he wrote about corruption at power utility Eskom.

City Press’ investigative reporter, Sipho Masondo, is also being provided with protection after receiving death threats related to his reporting on state corruption.

According to Wa Afrika, “these tactics are gaining momentum to force journalists to retreat”.

Evidence from across the continent bears this out.

This week, Radio France Internationale journalist Ahmed Abba, in detention since July 2015, was sentenced to 10 years in prison by a military court in Cameroon for “nondenunciation of terrorist acts” as a result of his reporting on terrorism.

In Egypt, Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been detained without trial for more than 120 days for “broadcasting false news with the aim of causing chaos”.

South Sudanese journalist John Tanza, like many of his African colleagues, has expressed concern about the killings and arrests of reporters, as well as the closure of independent media houses.

Globally, reports recorded by Civicus in recent months include bomb attacks on media offices, machete attacks, enforced disappearances and the use of physical force by police officers during protests.

These attacks are carried out either by the state and its agents, or by nonstate actors, including private companies, criminal gangs and extremist groups.

Worryingly, in almost a third of cases recorded by Civicus, the people responsible for these attacks remain unknown. This is indicative of what UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye calls a “widespread failure to hold perpetrators accountable for attacks on journalists”, caused by an “absence of concern for the role that journalists play in democratic societies”.

This absence of concern is also being fuelled by bilious verbal attacks from elected leaders against the media. We are all too aware of US President Donald Trump’s tirades against certain sections of the US media, but less attention is paid to similar behaviour by elected leaders in other parts of the world.

From Malawi to Uganda, Tanzania to Montenegro, elected leaders have labelled journalists “sputum”, “disgusting” and enemies of the state.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has even endorsed the killing of “corrupt” journalists.

We could dismiss this rhetoric as political theatre, were it not for the fact that the words directly fuel a culture of impunity, which encourages attacks against journalists. The deadly consequences for journalists are borne out by the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which reports that in 2016 alone, 79 journalists and media workers were killed.

In at least 48 of those cases, the motive has been confirmed as directly related to their work.


Limited data available on the Civicus Monitor shows that in more than half of cases, it is the state or its agents that are responsible for attacks on journalists. About 15% of cases are caused by nonstate actors. This shows us that journalists face a wide range of threats.

In many cases, states are attacking journalists, are not doing a good enough job of protecting them or are failing to properly investigate abuses against them.

Optimists would say that, in many places, courts still come to the rescue of journalists facing an overzealous state. We can also take some comfort from the fact that rising levels of literacy, the explosion of the internet and the democratisation of news through social media is ensuring that more people than ever have access to information about world events.

But this is not a time for us to sit back and place our faith in the internet to organically lead us out of this crisis. Instead, concerned citizens must rally to protect space for an independent and free media.

Those fortunate enough to live in countries where there is at least some level of plurality – who can read the news from several angles and make up their own minds – should remember that this scenario is not a given. Press freedom is a democratic right that needs to be protected and fought for.

In commemorating World Press Freedom Day on May 3, we should all join in the effort to make sure we have critical minds during these critical times.

Gilbert is coordinator of the Civicus Monitor. Kode and Mawarire are policy and research officers at Civicus

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