By Themba Mkhize
If you are a Caribbean national, here is something to consider: you belong to the region where the most journalists were killed in 2019. If this feels incongruous with your experience in the Caribbean, a simple explanation exists.
The region under scrutiny is actually the LAC, meaning Latin America and the Caribbean. The LAC is an amalgamation of heterogeneous sub-regions which are physically and culturally diverse, and in some cases distinct. The major sub-regions are Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
Each year the United Nations observes November 2 as the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. In commemoration of this day, the Director-General Report on the Safety of Journalists was published. The report showed that 40% of all journalists killed in 2019 were killed in LAC countries. The report caught my interest as I listened to an international news source which emphasized this statistic in their coverage.
Strictly speaking, this is true. If we agree to take Latin America and the Caribbean as one region for the purposes of this report, then it is true that the LAC is region where the most journalists were killed in 2019. But I do not think this approach to reporting effectively directs the audience to the critical information which the report and its statistics hope to communicate.
To begin with, the issue of journalists being killed in the LAC region is largely concentrated in Central and South America. In 2019, of the 21 countries in which journalists were killed globally, six were from the LAC region (almost one third). This six includes Mexico, which accounted for over half of the overall killings in the LAC. The list continues with Columbia, Honduras, Brazil and Chile, together accounting for all but 2 of the 23 killings, which originated in Haiti. Haiti’s political instability has not been characteristic of the wider Caribbean over the last two decades.
In the year before, 2018, there were no reports of journalist killings in Caribbean countries. Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua replaced Chile, Honduras and Haiti to round out a list of six Latin American countries where journalists were killed from the total of 23 globally. Mexico accounted for half of these killings – 13 – the same number as the other five LAC countries combined.
A review of the comprehensive information presented in the report shows that a similar pattern is observable across the years 2006-2019. It has to be worth pointing out such a nuance when reporting broad statistics so as to avoid mischaracterization of a large number of countries.
Leaving the LAC, a second point becomes clearer. Like Mexico, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and India are among the countries where a notable number of journalist killings are concentrated during the period. These are countries which need to be pointed out if an accurate picture is to be painted and specific questions asked. Broad statistics can only paint the background for hard questions to be asked of these countries with disproportionate reported figures.
Interestingly, the issue of how stories are reported is touched on in another 2020 UNESCO report titled Reporting Facts: Free from Fear or Favour. Societal trends and threats to the media and free press have no doubt influenced modern journalism. Sensationalism and oversimplification of news items form part of the media landscape in the age of clickbait and short attention spans. News broadcasters have to paint a comprehensive picture in their reports or else diminish the effectiveness with which they communicate, and in so doing misinform their audiences and jeopardize legitimate responses.
That said, press freedom is important to every democracy everywhere. A free press encourages institutional integrity in democratic systems. The murder of journalists is, as such, an assault on freedom of expression and the free flow of information. Violence and intimidation of the press must be prevented and rebuffed for our own sakes, and journalists must not be penned into reporting a set list of stories due to risks to their lives. Oftentimes, though, the killing of journalists is symptomatic of larger deficiencies in the legal system and law enforcement.
While there are larger criminal justice dynamics at play, the fact remains that no journalist anywhere should be bullied out of uncovering the truth, and no journalist anywhere should be killed with impunity. The duty of care shared between the free press and the people is as foundational as it is mutually beneficial.
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