Not enough. Journalists around the world are targets of both real and online attacks, and impunity for these crimes is on the rise.
Look no further than Ukraine to see journalists risking their lives to document Russia’s historic invasion of Europe’s second-largest country. Reporters in flak jackets and helmets are on the frontlines, live streaming airstrikes and troop movements to the world, minute by minute. The Kyiv Independent’s Illia Ponomarenko is documenting the invasion firsthand, literally around the clock.
According to Reporters Without Borders, more than 1,000 foreign correspondents have joined the Ukrainian press corps on the ground. In a statement released as tanks rolled into Ukraine, RSF called on Russian and Ukrainian authorities to respect their international obligations to protect journalists during armed conflicts.
“We are familiar with Russia’s methods,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Journalists are prime targets, as we have seen in Crimea since its annexation in 2014.”
Ten journalists were killed in the eastern Donbas region from 2014 to 2016, and RSF is concerned that journalists will be targeted again. “As part of the ‘de-Nazification of Ukraine,’ the Kremlin has drawn up a list of people who are at risk ‘to be killed or sent to camps.’ Those on the list have not been named, but they reportedly include journalists,” said RSF in its statement to remind Russia that international humanitarian law protects journalists.
This matters. An attack against a journalist is an attack on you and your access to fact-based information. When journalists can’t do their job, people in power are not accountable for their actions. That can lead to an environment ripe for corruption, censorship and even war.
What may surprise you is that violence against journalists is not just a problem overseas. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, 141 journalists were assaulted in the United States in 2021, while in 2020, an unprecedented 442 journalists were attacked, many by law enforcement while covering the Black Lives Matter protests.
Among the incidents in the last two years in the United States:
-A foam bullet fired by Minneapolis police during a George Floyd protest in Minneapolis left freelance journalist Linda Tirado permanently blind in her left eye.
-Law enforcement shot MSNBC reporter Ali Velshi in the leg with a rubber bullet while covering protests in Minneapolis.
-Traverse City Record-Eagle reporter Brendan Quealy was punched in the face while covering an anti-mask demonstration in Michigan.
-NPR Correspondent Frank Stoltze was shoved and kicked while covering an anti-vaccine protest outside the Los Angeles City Hall.
-Two members of a KATU News crew were assaulted by a group of individuals while covering unrest in Portland, Oregon after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict.
Even more common is online violence, especially against women journalists. According to a UNESCO study, nearly three in four women journalists who responded to the survey said they had experienced online violence. The report says threats of rape and murder are frequent and sometimes extend to their families. The abuse is so crippling that some even consider leaving the field.
All these journalists are simply trying to do their jobs as members of the press who have a constitutionally protected right to report events of public interest.
So what is and can be done to protect journalists?
Most importantly, all physical acts of violence against journalists must be thoroughly investigated and prosecuted—even those by law enforcement and military forces.
In the case of Ukrainian journalists, any member of the press forced to flee Ukraine should also be offered an emergency visa or refugee status. Journalists who feel threatened anywhere in the world can also call hotlines operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists for emergency support.
For online violence, journalists say the “pattern of blaming the victim” must stop, and instead, culpability must shift to the people posting these vile threats and the tech companies that enable them.
Social media companies say they protect users from online abuse, but reality does not support that claim. New research by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate for the BBC program Panorama reveals that 97% of accounts sending misogynistic abuse on Twitter and Instagram remained on those sites after being reported. Even worse, the investigation shows that Facebook and Instagram actively “push misogynistic content to men who send abusive content to women, radicalizing them further.”
To deal with this online hate, journalists are calling on newsrooms to designate “a point person” to monitor their social media and email accounts when they are attacked online to minimize their exposure to the abuse and threats. Along these lines, a coalition of groups including the CPJ and International Press Institute has joined to create an Online Violence Response Hub that offers individual digital safety consultations and other resources for journalists experiencing online violence.
Three leading press freedom groups have also launched a tribunal in The Hague to investigate attacks against journalists around the world. Although it has no legal standing to indict perpetrators, it will gather evidence and name those responsible in a report published on May 3, 2022—World Press Freedom Day.
Efforts like this tribunal to raise awareness are essential. At home and abroad, the public must demand protection for journalists and the free flow of independent news. Impunity only emboldens those who wish to silence journalists, and if these crimes go unanswered, the most significant casualty may, ultimately, be truth itself.