Egyptian photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid sits in a soundproof glass booth in September 2018 during his trial in a Cairo courtroom. He had been arrested for taking photos during two rallies where hundreds of people were killed by authorities during dispersal efforts. He was eventually released this past March. (Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images)

RSF Says Journalist Deaths Down, Arrests on Rise in 2019

Watchdog group: Middle East leads world – by far – in hostage-taking among media professionals

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that 49 journalists were killed on duty in January through November 2019, the fewest in 16 years – and 31 fewer than the average number during the past two decades.

Thirty-one of the 49 journalists were deliberately targeted. Ten of the dead were killed in the Middle East, a region notorious for its geopolitical instability.

RSF, in its latest annual report, attributes the drop to a reduction in casualties in conflict regions. It suggests that this might be because fewer journalists are covering wars, and not necessarily because there are fewer deadly conflicts.

For example, it notes that there have been fewer press boots on the ground in Yemen and Afghanistan. Much of this is due to the current political situation, which makes these countries particularly hazardous to report from.

The number of press members incarcerated or in captivity paints a less optimistic picture about the state of journalism.

According to the report, at least 57 reporters were in captivity in 2019 through December 1, roughly the same as the year before. Fully 56 were in the Middle East (Syria, 30; Iraq, 11; Yemen, 15). The 57th was in Ukraine.

RSF says that 389 journalists were in jail during the same time frame, a 12% hike over last year. China leads the pack, with 120, followed by Egypt, at 34, and Saudi Arabia, at 32.

Only 10 of the imprisoned Saudi journalists have had charges filed against them, and only four of the reporters jailed in Egypt have been found guilty.

RSF’s figures differ from those provided for the same period in an annual report recently released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which said Turkey leads the Middle East in incarcerated media professionals, at 47. In that report, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the next biggest regional offenders, at 26 each.

Neither the RSF nor the CPJ survey counts journalists who were imprisoned this year but have since been released. However, according to Gökhan Durmuş, president of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, there are currently 110 professionals incarcerated in that country.

What’s more, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has increased his attacks on the press after a failed coup in 2016, Durmuş argues that limiting press freedoms has been a trend in the country for the past decade.

“There is strong pressure on journalists in Turkey in the last 10 years. The perpetrators may change, but the target has always been journalists,” he told The Media Line.

“As of today, 95% of the media in Turkey is under control of the government, which will continue its pressure on the field of media until it achieves its goal of transforming society [to the way that it wants],” he said.

Durmuş also argues that many reporters do not have access to collective bargaining, which offers them power to advocate on their own behalf.

“This situation is linked to a lack of solidarity among journalists and unionization,” he said.

Nonetheless, he maintains that members of the press are very determined to do their job.

“Journalism is a highly significant and crucial profession for society since journalists are the guarantors of democracy,” he explained. “This is why journalists are targeted in many countries, and [why working in] in Turkey is very difficult.”

Despite these challenges, though, journalism in Turkey remains a rewarding profession.

“It gives you the chance to reveal the truths and the facts to the public,” Durmuş said.

Adam Lucente, a freelance journalist based in Iraq, finds his work “challenging and rewarding.” The Kurdish area in northern Iraq, where he lives, is relatively calm, although he says the Iraqi journalists there face more dangers than he does.

“Local journalists have more difficulties than foreign ones, in my opinion,” he told The Media Line. “Throughout the country, several have been arrested or targeted this year by militias or security forces. I don’t know what can be done to protect them.”

Still, Lucente himself does not always feel safe.

“I’d like to discuss disaster scenarios more with my editors. Usually I just go somewhere like Baghdad or Syria pretty much on my own,” he explained.

This is a problem that Sofia Barbarani, who has reported from Syria and Iraq, argues that many freelancers face.

“Freelancers receive very little support when it comes to security in conflict zones. Outlets that commission journalists in conflict areas should be willing to invest time and money in basic things like hostile environment training, insurance and security checks,” she told The Media Line.

Like Durmuş, Lucente feels that uniting members of the profession could make the job less hazardous.

“Local and foreign reporters are not very close,” he stated. “Maybe if we were in better contact, international outlets could advocate on our behalf when we get in trouble.”

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