Photo by Hatice Yardım on Unsplash

International journalist organizations regularly publish reports on the difficulties journalists face in their work. Journalists are subjected to violence and repression both because they work in conflict zones and because their work challenges the interests of those in power.

Ukraine, which has become a hot conflict zone due to the aggression of Russia, is the most dangerous region for journalists in Europe. Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko said in June that at least 32 journalists have been killed in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. Tkachenko, himself a journalist, called all journalists working in the war-torn country heroes.

Russia, on the other side of the war, is a country that often comes to the fore with its crackdown on journalists. Most recently, on September 5, Russian journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison for treason for allegedly sharing state secrets with foreign countries. “Russia’s ruthless judicial apparatus is trying to crush a talented journalist, but in vain, because others will take his place,” said Jeanne Cavelier, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Another threat to press freedom in Russia is the court’s revocation of the license of Novaya, a prominent critical newspaper that denounced Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in its front page. Novaya had criticized Russia’s stance since the first days of the aggression.

Especially in European countries, there are many refugee journalists fleeing from Russia and Ukraine.

Council of Europe Report on “Journalist Safety”

In a report, the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Safety of Journalists condemned the “war on journalism in certain parts of Europe”, noting that “at least 12 journalists and media workers” have been killed, especially since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists have become commonplace in Europe,” the platform said, calling on European governments to take action. Against the backdrop of a steady deterioration of press freedom in Europe, marked by a significant increase in the number of imprisoned journalists, Russia is attacking its neighbor, the report said, adding that the war between Russia and Ukraine has worsened the safety of journalists. According to the platform’s report, at least 12 members of the media were killed and 21 were injured while covering the conflict in Ukraine in 2022. Over the course of the war since last year, 289 separate cases of “threats or serious violations of media freedom” were reported from 37 countries, including “killings, imprisonment, attacks, legal harassment and victims of smear campaigns”. This figure includes Russia, which the platform decided to continue monitoring after its expulsion from the Council of Europe in March 2022. In particular, the report notes that it received “74 complaints concerning the physical integrity of journalists” and calls for European institutions and governments to sound the alarm. Commenting on the report, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejcinovic Buric said: “In recent years we have witnessed a worrying increase in attacks and threats against journalists. Unfortunately, many of these attacks go unpunished. I call on our 46 member states to take this problem seriously and to fully respect and protect journalists’ rights, ensure their safety, protect their sources and prevent censorship and other forms of interference in their work.”

The most dangerous country in the western hemisphere: Mexico

The dangers in non-conflict zones are not insignificant. If you type “murder of a journalist” into a search engine, you can always find a current news story. For example, in August, Leiner Montero Ortega and Dilia Contreras Cantillo, journalists working for a news website called Sol Digital, were shot dead in Colombia. The Free Press Foundation has called on the investigating police not to downplay their identity as journalists while investigating the murders of Ortega and Cantillo. According to the Free Press Foundation, 768 journalists were subjected to violence in Colombia in 2021, including murders.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Mexico is the most dangerous country in the Western hemisphere outside the conflict zone. In January, three journalists, José Luis Gamboa, Margarito Martínez and Lourdes Maldonado López, were killed in quick succession. López was part of the Mexican government’s journalist protection program because she had previously been attacked for her journalistic work. In the first eight months of 2022, at least thirteen journalists were killed in Mexico, compared to seven in 2021. Between 1992 and 2022, 151 journalists and media workers were killed nationwide.

In 2019, Mexico was also ranked as the most dangerous country for journalists in the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) report. Jan-Albert Hootsen, Mexico Representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that any hope that Mexico could be a safer place for journalists has evaporated. Unless the Mexican authorities make ending impunity for the murder of journalists a priority, Hootsen says, nothing will change. Corruption and drug trafficking continue to threaten journalists in Mexico every day.

Turning north, we see that the United States of America (USA) was included in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) list of the most dangerous countries for journalists in 2018. In 2018, five journalists were killed in an armed attack on a local newspaper office in Maryland, the first time the US has been on the list since 1995.

On September 2, 2022, another murder of a journalist entered the US agenda. Jeff German, known for his investigative reporting for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, died after a knife attack. Before his death, German was investigating allegations of misconduct by public administrator Robert Telles. Telles, charged with murder, was taken into custody on September 8 and released on bail. DNA samples from German’s fingernails matched Telles’ DNA.

According to RSF’s 2021 report, 46 journalists were killed for their work in 2021. Afghanistan, where 6 journalists were killed in one year, ranks second on the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists. Afghanistan, which has long been a conflict zone, remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in Asia. According to the same report, Yemen and India share the third place in the list of the most dangerous countries with 4 journalists killed in each country. The report declares Asia the most dangerous continent for journalists, with 109 journalists killed in the last five years.

In 2021, 488 journalists were detained worldwide, the highest number since 1995, RSF said. The number of detained journalists has increased by 20 percent compared to 2020.

According to RSF, China holds the title of the world’s largest journalist prison, with 127 journalists imprisoned in 2021. The report says this is due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasing control over Hong Kong. The report notes that 53 journalists were arrested in Myanmar after the military coup in February 2021, compared to just two in 2020. Myanmar is followed by Vietnam with 43 journalists, Belarus with 32, and Saudi Arabia with 31. Reminding that Vietnam and Saudi Arabia were also on the list in 2020, the report attributes the imprisoned journalists in Belarus to the re-election of President Aleksandr Lukashenko in 2020.

According to RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, Iran is one of the ten worst countries in the world for press freedom. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, at least a thousand journalists and citizen journalists have been arrested and some have been executed. The country’s media is largely controlled by the Islamic regime, which limits the diversity of news and leads to censorship. Iranian journalists working for international media outside Iran also face threats and pressure. Their families in Iran are harassed by police. In a country where access to social media platforms is limited or banned, last year Iran’s Prosecutor General’s Office opened an investigation against Communications and Information Technology Minister Mohammad Javad Azeri Jehromi for failing to enforce a ban on access to foreign social media platforms.

Turkey: Earthquake and Dictatorship

In Turkey, the press is not free at all. For example, in the last 1.5 months alone, the General Directorate of Security (EGM) has blocked access to 344 addresses, including Twitter and Facebook posts and YouTube channels of Kurdish-language publishing houses, news websites and podcasts. While the direct websites of Avesta Publishing House and Erbil-based media group Rudaw were blocked, posts shared on the social media accounts of Botan Times, the news website of Botan International, which cooperates with Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Podcast Kurdi and Hurbini, which publish Kurdish podcasts, and the online newspaper Mezopotamya Agency were blocked. Evrensel Web TV, the YouTube channel of Evrensel newspaper, was also blocked. Bitlis Journalists Association President
Sinan Aygül was sentenced to 10 months in prison on charges of “sharing misleading information to the public” for his report on the sexual harassment of a girl. Aygül became the first journalist to be sentenced to prison under the “censorship law” enacted by the fascist AKP-MHP government. During the earthquake disaster in Turkey and northern Syria on February 6, 2023, which killed at least 350,000 people according to unofficial data, there were also attempts to censor and block journalists and the press. On the second day of the earthquake, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared live on television and threatened those who criticized the lack of response and inadequacy of state institutions. Erdoğan said, “We are taking note of all those who criticize the government. We will use these notes when the time comes.” In order to prevent journalists from recording the bad images in the earthquake zone and reporting the truth, both Turkish and foreign journalists were required to apply to a government agency for an “accreditation card”. Of course, these accreditations were granted completely arbitrarily. Mezopotamya Agency (MA) reporter Mahmut Altıntaş and JINNEWS reporter Sema Çağlak were detained in Urfa while trying to cover the debris in the city. MA reporter Mehmet Güleş was reportedly detained along with the person he was interviewing after the volunteer criticized the search and rescue operations. The detained journalists were accused of “forgery” or “spreading false information” based on statements made by news sources that have not yet been published. Twelve days after the earthquake, the “witch hunt” was extended to social media. Police officials announced that 771 accounts were identified, 127 people were detained and 24 people were arrested for making provocative posts about the earthquake on social media platforms, mainly Twitter and Facebook.

Quoted above the report published by the Council of Europe’s Platform for the Safety of Journalists states that Turkey’s disinformation law poses a threat to press freedom, cites the murder of Güngör Arslan, a journalist working for local media in Kocaeli, Turkey, as the only murder of a journalist outside a war zone in 2022, and emphasizes that the murders of Cemal Khashoggi, Hrant Dink, Ruhat Aktaş, Kutlu Adalı (TRNC) and even Uğur Mumcu in previous years remain unsolved. The report also states that 36 journalists were arrested in Turkey in 2022.

The report also examines legislation that restricts the work of journalists, such as the monitoring of journalists’ communications, abuse of the judicial system to suppress or intimidate journalists, strategic prosecutions, pressure on public media and media seizures. On pages 66 and 67, the report refers to the “disinformation law” that was passed by Parliament on October 13 and came into force on October 18. Recalling the case of journalist Sedef Kabaş, who was tried and sentenced to 2 years and 4 months in prison, it is emphasized that the law, which includes some 40 articles, poses a risk of imprisonment for millions of social media users, especially for the crime of insulting the president. In addition to imprisonment for journalists, the law “introduces generalized censorship and self-censorship” with heavy financial penalties such as channel closures or fines.