Journalism Remains a Deadly Profession, Says UNESCO in Latest Report

Audrey Azoulay

Journalism remains a deadly profession with nine out of 10 killings of journalists unresolved, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in its latest publication in which it recorded 455 journalists killed for their work or while on the job from 2016 to 2021.

Although UNESCO said the figure showed a slight improvement compared to the previous five years, it noted that just 13 percent of the cases it has recorded since 2006 have been judicially resolved, threatening a continued cycle of violence.

Titled “Journalism is a Public Good”, UNESCO said the 2021/2022 edition of the “World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development” places a special focus on understanding the role of journalism as a public good, which in turn is a key component of the wider conceptualization of information as a public good.

It noted that the findings in the report are grounded in data-driven analysis, conducted by UNESCO in partnership with Data-Pop Alliance, of trends in media freedom, pluralism, independence, and the safety of journalists, and supplemented by original research by Economist Impact that was commissioned for the report.

UNESCO said the World Trends Report responds to a key task assigned to it by its Members States at the 36th session of the General Conference, which requested it to “monitor, in close cooperation with other United Nations bodies and other relevant organizations active in this field, the status of press freedom and safety of journalists…and to report on the developments in these fields to the General Conference”

The 2021/2022 report noted that press freedom continued its downward trend across the globe with approximately 85 percent of the world’s population experienced a decline in press freedom in their countries over the past five years, according to analysis based on data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute.

UNESCO said measures taken in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were also frequently used to justify violations of press freedom.

It also reported that dozens of laws have been adopted or amended since 2016 that contain overly vague language or disproportionate punishments that threaten online freedom of expression while in the last five years, government requests for content removal on major internet platforms have doubled.

According to the report, audiences and revenues continue to move online, placing the news media’s traditional business models in grave danger. It cited the fact that the number of social media users worldwide leapt from 2.3 billion in 2016 to 4.2 billion in 2021, while advertising revenues have shifted rapidly towards internet companies and away from news outlets.

It noted that Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) now receive approximately half of all global digital advertising spending, while global newspaper advertising revenue dropped by half in the last five years.

However, UNESCO said, progress in closing the gender gap in newsrooms, in bylines, and in the news itself has largely stagnated as women continue to be underrepresented at leadership levels in news organizations and on “hard news” beats like politics, while both qualitative and quantitative studies suggest persistent biases in women’s representation in the news and the marginalization of women as expert sources.

Specifically, it observed, that during the COVID-19 pandemic, only 27 per cent of health specialists quoted in the media were women, despite the fact that women make up approximately half of health specialists worldwide.

UNESCO also reported that a deluge of misinformation and disinformation has contributed to years of declining trust in media worldwide, saying:The growing challenge of false and misleading content was brought into sharp relief during the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so as to be dubbed a ‘disinfodemic’. At the same time, according to several reports, trust in media and information sources has continued to decline over the past five years.”

It noted that amid controversies, recent years have seen mounting calls to end the opacity of internet companies’ moderation and curation of content, stressing that greater transparency about their operations would open these entities up to public scrutiny and greater accountability.

UNESCO said: “Both independent reports and high-profile whistleblowers have flagged the need for greater transparency across the board, especially regarding the companies’ governance and accountability around data holdings and privacy, fact-checking, and community standards and implementation thereof, including moderation of hate speech and mis- and disinformation.”

Meanwhile, it observed that other threats against journalists, online and off-line, have continued to grow, citing journalist imprisonment, which is at record highs, while online violence and harassment are spurring self-censorship and, in some cases, physical attacks.

UNESCO remarked these threats inordinately affect women journalists and those who represent minority groups, citing 73 per cent of women journalists responding to a survey by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists, who said that they had experienced online violence in the course of their work.

But it insisted that the burgeoning data ecosystem offers the chance to improve our understanding of and support for the media sector and freedom of expression, although it pointed out that in the countries and communities where journalism is most at risk, the health of the news system on issues like ownership, pluralism, independence, and viability often remains a black box.

It also stressed that using data to inform policies and solutions must first overcome significant gaps in availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability.

By UNESCO’s assessment, “In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, trustworthy, independent media proved itself to be a lifesaving public good”, although “it is under systemic economic threat and needs support.”

However, it said the impact of the pandemic worsened the already fragile viability of news outlets, which collectively constitute a pluralistic and independent media sector, adding that new policies and measures are urgently needed to ensure that journalism can continue to function as a public good, including public financing for trusted news outlets, enhanced support for genuine public service media, and a redoubling of donor aid and philanthropic investments in news production.

UNESCO reported that actions to support press freedom and media development have converged to produce the Windhoek+30 Declaration, a roadmap for the future outlining principles that were endorsed by UNESCO Member States in 2021.

According to it, “The Declaration calls attention to the ongoing value to democracy and sustainable development of free, pluralistic, and independent media where journalists can work in safety. It further signals the urgent importance of securing economic viability for news, transparency of internet companies, and increasing media and information competencies amongst the public.”