Why We Must Protect Journalists, Our Pandemic Storytellers

Journalists are our pandemic storytellers. They are asking tough questions to expose the truth about how governments are managing the crisis, examining the collapse of our social safety nets, disseminating the latest information about how to stop the spread of the disease, and facilitating the conversation about how to smartly distribute a vaccine. Yet, in exchange for their crucial work at long hours and little pay, journalists around the world are privy to great risks – including heightened exposure to COVID-19, government surveillance, arrest, detention, and even death.

The ongoing pandemic has required us to isolate from one another, while exposing the societal vulnerabilities that demand we come together to create change. At the call of stay-at-home orders around the world, we have seen the intensification of domestic violence against women and girls, who were already shouldering an unbalanced burden of unpaid care work at home as compared to men. Vulnerable groups are experiencing heightened food insecurity, displacement, and higher rates of coronavirus hospitalization and death. Prisons have become COVID-19 hotbeds, and there are exacerbated gaps in the learning crisis for millions of students who cannot access a virtual education. It is within this grim reality, brewing with questions about how to address the challenges of our time, that governments have failed to protect the world’s journalists: the very frontline workers gathering information about the problems and solutions before us during a critical chapter of our shared human story.

The threats journalists experience in retaliation for their work are often gender-specific, in part due to the different opportunities media workers are afforded based on their gender. An October 2020 UNESCO report on the safety of journalists highlighted that in 2019, 91 percent of journalists killed in fatal attacks were men. Female journalists are significantly less likely to experience fatal attacks while reporting, because they are less likely than their male counterparts to be selected for dangerous, high-level field assignments to begin with. Closing this opportunity gap should be reason enough for states to offer journalists greater protections. Instead, female journalists continue to face attacks in the form of both offline and online physical and sexual harassment that put their safety at risk. A prime example of this is the case of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya, who was brutally abducted, tortured, and raped by a far-right paramilitary group in 2000 for investigating arms-trafficking.

While the types of attacks journalists experience are often different based on their gender, the culture of impunity that protects the perpetrators of crimes against journalists remains the same. In 2020, only 13 percent of crimes against journalists were reported as resolved, leaving the large majority of perpetrators to enjoy impunity. This reality is particularly concerning at a moment when crimes against journalists are only increasing. A new report from CIVICUS reveals that in 2020, censorship and attacks against journalists were a leading tactic used by governing authorities to suppress civic freedoms. In a pandemic year where ensuring the safety of journalists proved increasingly critical, civic freedoms declined by 4 percent — from charging journalists with allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19, to punishing them under draconian laws for criticizing the government’s management of the crisis.

Respecting journalists’ right to freedom of expression, and our right to access the information they are working to provide, are fundamental human rights enshrined by international human rights laws and standards, and in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If we are to preserve the bedrock of our democracy and civic freedoms, it is critical that governments follow suit. As media outlets work to recover from the devastating financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, they will continue to face the challenge of fighting a culture of impunity for crimes against journalists that has harmed the profession for decades. With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, and vaccine rollout underway, it will be critical for governments to not only allow journalists to gather and distribute information without fear of retaliation, but to protect them as they do so.