2018 Worst Year on Record for Violence Against Journalists

The current and worsening erosion of freedom of the press worldwide represents an unprecedented threat to democracy.
2018 Worst Year on Record for Violence Against Journalists
Image by Abdelilah Arahal/ Inside Arabia

2018 was the worst year on record for deadly violence and abuse directed at journalists, according to the annual roundup report published on December 18, 2018,  by Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which has been publishing the report since 1995.

The report listed 348 journalists imprisoned for their work this past year and a further 60 held hostage in 2018. At least 80 were killed

The report listed 348 journalists imprisoned for their work this past year and a further 60 held hostage in 2018. At least 80 were killed. While this figure has fallen three years in a row, these 80 deaths represent an 8 percent increase since 2017. The number of journalists around the world held hostage—60—is 11 percent higher than at the end of 2017. Aside from Stanislav Aseyev, who is currently being held hostage in Ukraine, all of these journalists are held in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. 

Fifteen journalists were killed in conflict in Afghanistan in 2018, along with 11 in Syria.

Fifteen journalists were killed in conflict in Afghanistan in 2018, along with 11 in Syria. Mexico was the deadliest country outside of a conflict zone for journalists, where nine were killed, although it is perhaps naive not to regard Mexico’s drug war as a conflict situation.

Perhaps most shocking of all, is that for the first time, the U.S. has been added to the list of “hazardous locations” for journalists, largely as a result of the shooting of five employees of the Capital Gazette, a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, in June 2018. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 11 journalists have died in the USA doing their jobs since 1992, 8 of whom were the victims of targeted killings.

“The hatred of journalists that is voiced, and sometimes very openly proclaimed, by unscrupulous politicians, religious leaders and businessmen has tragic consequences on the ground and has been reflected in this disturbing increase in violations against journalists,” said RSF’s Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. 

Much of the blame for this has to be laid at the doorstep of President Trump and other populist leaders. Trump openly uses his public speeches and social media accounts to demonize the media. He has described them on several occasions as “the enemy of the people” and constantly dismisses stories that are critical of him or his policies and administration as “fake news.”

Trump’s failure to condemn the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi by officials of U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, in October, is not only indicative of his contempt for the media but also of his ignorance of the crucial role the press plays in a democracy.

Even in this time of increasing violence against journalists, the Khashoggi case represents one of the ugliest episodes of recent times. His murder was carried out in broad daylight and in the consulate of the Saudi government itself in a foreign state. The brazenness and brutality of Khashoggi’s killing, with little attempt to conceal what had happened, demonstrates that the Saudi government felt confident that it could commit murder with impunity in the current climate. Furthermore, the fact that Khashoggi’s remains are yet to be recovered, is a testament to the premeditated and meticulously planned nature of the attack, not some rogue operation gone awry.

Notwithstanding this egregious outrage against humanity, and despite the report of U.S. intelligence that Khashoggi’s death was likely ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman himself, Trump explicitly has cited the lucrative contracts for weapons and oil between the two countries as reasons for not sanctioning the Saudi regime. 

Across the Atlantic, European Union (EU) officials regularly accuse Hungary’s right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban of demonizing the media and spreading disinformation, including explicit attempts to use media and even museums and the school system to rewrite significant aspects of the country’s history.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan has described journalists critical of his rule as terrorists.

Elsewhere, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has described journalists critical of his rule as terrorists. In the Philippines, where some 80 journalists have been killed in recent decades, president Rodrigo Duterte referred to them as “spies.” Both have implemented wide-reaching “reforms” limiting freedom of the press.

More than half of the 348 journalists detained worldwide are held in just five countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. According to RSF, the most prolific jailer of journalists is China, where 60 journalists are currently imprisoned on such vague charges as “subversion of state power.” 

While these figures are alarming in themselves, the current war on journalism represents an extremely serious existential threat to democracy worldwide. Political leaders (and therefore world events) can only be held to account by informed populations, which in turn can only be informed via widespread access to reliable information. Those in power, therefore, have a direct incentive to suppress independent, serious journalism as it enables leaders to further cement their power and act with impunity. Put simply, truth is the lifeblood of democracy.

It is significant that Time magazine chose journalists such as Jamal Khashoggi and the Capital Gazette staff who have been targeted for annihilation in this “war on truth” as its 2018 Person(s) of the Year.

While the trend toward authoritarianism in non-democratic countries is alarming, the abuse of journalists and threats to the free press are perhaps of even greater concern in democratic western countries such as the U.S. and the EU member states. It is an unhappy irony that in the so-called age of information, the world appears to be fragmenting more and more into separate ideological communities, often serviced by their own alternative media and even so-called alternative facts. President Trump has explicitly praised many authoritarian leaders, even going as far as to congratulate Chinese President Xi Jinping on being granted the constitutional right to serve as president for life in March 2018. “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday,” quipped Trump at a fundraiser in Florida.

Within the Arab world, the countries with the most egregious records of abuses are undoubtedly Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Within the Arab world, the countries with the most egregious records of abuses are undoubtedly Saudi Arabia and Egypt. RSF has called Egypt “one of the world’s biggest prisons for Journalists.” Egypt’s August 2015 terrorism law cites national security as grounds for requiring journalists to report only the official version of terrorist attacks. Coverage of routine subjects such as inflation and corruption can also result in imprisonment. More than 20 journalists were arrested in the six months preceding the country’s presidential elections in March 2018. 

Sophie Anmuth, a Paris-based researcher with the Middle East desk at RSF, says that at least 12 of these journalists were arrested because of their work in connection with the 2018 elections. Thirty-two journalists are currently detained in Egypt, 22 without charges. All are Egyptian nationals and six are currently pending trial. Sherif Mansour of the Committee to Protect Journalists has said, it is “hard to distinguish any journalist that can be safe.”

In the buildup to the 2018 elections, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi warned the media that speaking against the military or police was “high treason.” This rhetoric went hand in hand with an increase in censorship. The Freedom of Thought and Expression Law Firm (AFTE) reported that at least 496 websites were blocked between May 2017 and February 2018.

In 2018, UNESCO awarded its World Press Freedom Prize to Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid. Zeid has been imprisoned in the country since August 2013 and may yet face the death penalty. 

The case of Saudi Arabia is yet more extreme. While the case of Jamal Khashoggi has received most of the recent media coverage, abuse of journalists is commonplace within Saudi Arabia. With dozens of missing or detained journalists, Saudi Arabia is ranked 168th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index. The Saudi state regularly makes open demands of journalists, for instance calling on them in 2017 to “show more patriotism.” 

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Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 60 people are currently behind bars in Saudi Arabia for a range of crimes that amount to merely criticizing the government. Famous examples include secular blogger Raif Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who protested against the ban on women’s driving who faces up to 20 years in prison.

But the list of unknown victims of Saudi Arabia’s continual crackdown on free expression grows far longer. It is important to remember that the fate of those like Khashoggi, who speak English and have links with western journalists, is far more likely to attract western media attention than the innumerable others who are not as well known to western audiences. 

Al Jazeera reported in November 2018 that another Saudi journalist, Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Jasser, was arrested in March last year and allegedly tortured to death while in detention.

Al Jazeera reported in November 2018 that another Saudi journalist, Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Jasser, was arrested in March last year and allegedly tortured to death while in detention. Behind such actions is said to be Saud al-Qahtani, who worked behind the scenes as an enforcer for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Arabia21 Editor-in-Chief Feras Abu Helal has said that Qahtani is “not only implicated in Khashoggi’s murder but in the kidnapping of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri.” Although close to the crown prince and the apparent fall guy in connection with the killing, al-Qahtani has as of January 7, 2019, dropped out of sight.  

Saudi intimidation of journalists has taken many forms. RSF has reported that many “journalists and citizen-journalists have been the targets of campaigns of insults and intimidation on Twitter, carried out at the behest of the crown prince’s advisers. The deployment of these troll armies recalls the operations by ‘King Salman’s electronic army‘ in 2015 and 2016.”

Ghanem al-Masir, a Saudi dissident living in exile in London, has said, “I think [Mohammed bin Salman] is trying to silence me and others. If he’s willing to do that with Jamal Khashoggi, I don’t think he won’t do it with me if he has the opportunity.”

While it is right to focus most energy on the most extreme cases, it is critical to remember that the trend of the demonization and victimization of journalists is a global one. The current attacks on journalists, journalism, and the truth, as revealed by research such as the RSF report, should trouble anyone with an interest in preserving democracy, human rights, and liberal freedoms. The War on Truth is an attack on us all.