2016: Jailed journalists, fake news and danger zones

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Protesters in Turkey have been demonstrating against the ongoing crackdown on media, as journalists continue to be jailed at an alarming rate (AFP)

As we approach the end of 2016, it is time to look back on another year during which members of the media have continued to be targeted and suffer extreme difficulties because of their work.

According to the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), fewer journalists have been killed in 2016, where the motive for their deaths has been confirmed as their work. 

IPI reports that 72 journalists have been killed until December 12, CPJ noted that 48 journalists had been killed, while RSF reported on the deaths of 53 journalists who were killed or targeted for their work, out of a total of 74 deaths.

While their numbers represent an improvement on frightening numbers in previous years, the number of deaths is still too high, and the problem of impunity remains a significant threat to media freedom around the world.

Those responsible for targeting journalists, whether it be to curb coverage or in retaliation for work they may have done in the past, all too often get away with murder, and according to UNESCO, only one in ten cases of journalist killings are brought to justice.

The International Day to End Impunity on November 2 provided another occasion to raise awareness of the significance of this issue, and highlight the urgent need to engage all stakeholders in addressing the consistent danger that the current culture of impunity poses.

Impunity is not alone in posing a threat to journalists or media freedom in general, and there are many other issues – some of which have reared their ugly heads more savagely this year – which continue to face members of the profession as they attempt to carry out their work.

More jailed journalists than ever before

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), more journalists are currently behind bars than ever before.

The organisation’s census found that, as of December 1, a global record of 259 media workers were in jail, with Turkey leading the world’s jailers, holding 81 journalists behind bars.

Other countries which continue to jail the highest numbers of journalists include Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

As long as journalists are jailed for their work, citizens are denied their fundamental right of access to information, and are unable to make fully informed decisions on the most pressing issues facing them and their families at a time of great instability and change around the world, and especially in the Arab world.

It is simply unacceptable that governments attempt to silence criticism by placing journalists behind bars for their reporting.  Turkey’s continued crackdown against independent media represents a serious threat to press freedom in the country, and journalists reporting on the situation since the failed coup bid in July this year have been targeted by the authorities as part of attempts to stifle open coverage of the political situation.

However, Turkey is by no means the only country guilty of jailing journalists for their work, and international organisations must continue to pressurise those governments that place media workers behind bars to silence dissent and call for the release of all imprisoned journalists.

The threat of fake news

Although misinformation is not strictly a new phenomenon, it is a relatively recent development in that it has spread with the growth of social media and other online news platforms.

In the wake of the coverage of the US election campaign throughout 2016, the problem of fake news has emerged in an unprecedented manner, with many media experts suggesting that the spread of false reports regarding the candidates

Pressure has been placed on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to take a role in preventing the spread of false news, although they are hesitant to take the step towards assuming any sort of editorial responsibility, viewing themselves simply as platforms for sharing content.

However, a recent development in the ongoing fake news controversy suggests that Facebook has found a way to try and inform users of the potential inaccuracy of a story.

Teaming up with a number of fact checkers and news organisations, Facebook will inform users when a particular story might be untrue, marking the story as unverified or questionable.

According to a Washing Post article on the subject of fake news, users will be able to report issues with stories, while Facebook will also post a link to the organisation responsible for debunking the story.  Additionally, users will also be able to directly message people responsible for posing questionable material online.

This development represents a step forward for Facebook and its 1 billion users, but more needs to be done to curb the spread of false news through social media. 

Misinformation represents a major threat to global tolerance and understanding, and young people are at significant threat of indoctrination by the extent of false news being shared and shown online.

Conflict reporting

With a number of conflicts still raging across the globe, journalists working in war zones continue to confront unimaginable dangers as they attempt to bring information from the ground to others.

While the number of journalists killed around the world during the past year decreased, those working in conflict zones continue to be targeted by various factions involved and covering war became the deadliest beat for journalists.

According to RSF and CPJ’s reports, the number of journalists killed in conflict zones in 2016 increased, and Syria was once again the deadliest country for members of the media.

Overwhelmingly, the majority of journalists killed are local reporters, which fail to gain anything like the same amount of coverage as foreign journalists when they are targeted.

While the decreasing levels of journalists’ deaths overall is certainly an extremely positive development, lower numbers of journalist deaths may also represent a worsening of global stability and security, with journalists opting not to cover particularly dangerous conflicts.

Conflicts and security issues continue to force journalists from their homes and home countries, and the worsening situation – especially in the Middle East – may account for lower numbers of journalists’ deaths, as many media workers have chosen to leave danger zones to preserve their lives.

Moving forwards

According to RSF, while the number of journalists killed this year has decreased on previous years, some 348 journalists are currently detained around the world.

Journalists continue to be charged with terrorism or contravening national security as an easy way of closing down dissenting voices, and justice is rarely done in these cases, even if those in question are released.

On the other hand, at least 50 journalists are being held hostage, with the majority of these being held in conflict zones in the Middle East.

And so any thoughts that 2016 has provided a major positive step for media freedom need to be tempered with the reality that journalism remains an extremely dangerous occupation at this moment in time.

Capacity building remains a highly significant tool for combating some of these particularly dangerous threats facing global media freedom.

Journalists’ safety training continues to be a main priority for media workers everywhere, and raising awareness of how to journalists can protect themselves and colleagues could hopefully contribute towards reducing the numbers of kidnappings and deaths.

In more general terms, the rise of false news as well as the proliferation of hate speech and incitement across social media platforms means that media and information literacy (MIL) education is absolutely essential to developing young, informed and globally aware citizens.

Only by making consumers aware of the sources of the reports they read and teaching readers and viewers to be critical as opposed to passive, will we be able to combat the highly dangerous spread of false news.

General capacity building is also important in that it can help to improve standards of journalism across the board.  Moving away from partisan, politically affiliated propaganda posing as journalism – especially in the Middle East – will empower journalists to carry out their work, build trust in the industry and hopefully contribute towards greater protection and less violence in general.


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