We need journalists now more than ever – so why don’t we do more to protect them?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Friday, 17 June 2022 12:03, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:09
Federal Police officers carry a coffin containing human remains after a suspect confessed to killing British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and led police to the location of remains, at the headquarters of the Federal Police, in Brasilia, Brazil, June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

When it comes to saving democracy and fighting for freedom, no one has a more important role to play than journalists.

Take the current war in Ukraine. This is a conflict driven by Vladimir Putin’s personal beliefs and obsessions, but it has also been facilitated by the limited checks and balances in the Russian political system. One of the biggest weaknesses of that system is that Putin’s control over the media is so great that most Russians don’t actually know what is happening in Ukraine, or how the conflict is understood by the rest of the world. The absence of accurate and impartial information has stymied domestic criticism of Putin, lowering the costs of sustaining the conflict and reducing the incentives for the Russian president to change course.

It is not only in Russia that we can see the importance of the media to democracy and human rights. Amartya Sen famously argued that a famine was much less likely to take place in a country with a free press because a government would not be able to let it happen in a country in which failure to act would be front-page news.

It is therefore imperative to protect journalists and free speech if we want to bring an end to a global democratic recession that is now in its seventeenth year – and which has led to a situation in which eight out of ten citizens now live in a country that is either “unfree” or only “partly free”.

And yet the international community regularly don’t.

Protecting media freedoms

It is true that international donors spend a lot of money promoting the media and what the UK government is now calling “open societies”. OECD countries spend around US $600 million on facilitating a stronger and freer media environment around the world every year, and for much of the last five years “Media” has been the third largest sector of Democracy Aid (below “Democracy and Participation” and “Human Rights” but above “Women”, “Political Parties”, and “Elections”).

A Global Media Defence Fund has also been set up to protect media freedom at home and abroad, with significant pledges from a wide range of countries including France, Japan, the UK, the US and New Zealand. In this way, the international community does invest in trying to prevent the erosion of press freedom around the world.

This is particularly striking because journalists are murdered so frequently. Forty-five journalists were killed in 2021 according to the International Press Institute’s Death Watch. That is almost once a week. Only six of those who died did so because of what we might call the environmental dangers related to their professions, such as being caught up in armed conflict or civil unrest. By contrast, twenty-eight, by far the majority – keep in mind that eleven cases are still under investigation – were murdered in direct retaliation for their work.

The most dangerous countries for journalists last year were Mexico (seven deaths), Afghanistan (six), India (six), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (three). But the death toll isn’t contained to a small number of countries – journalists were also killed in Colombia, Guatemala, the Philippines, Yemen, and Haiti. It is important that those reading this in Europe or North America don’t make the mistake of thinking that is something that happens “over there”: last year six journalists were killed in Europe, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, the Netherlands and one in Greece.

Almost none of these killings were condemned by the world leaders who are among the few people with the influence to do something to prevent them.

Partly as a result of this silence, the killings will continue. As I wrote this blog, the news was emerging that police in Brazil were looking for the missing journalist Dom Phillips and local expert Bruno Pereira. Pereria was a renowned indigenous activist, who was accompanying UK journalist Phillips on a reporting trip about sustainable development in the Amazon. Their bodies were found after a suspect, Amarildo da Costa de Oliveira and his brother Oseney confessed and disclosed the location.

Phillips and Pereira had become well known for exposing illegal fishing and other threats to the Amazon. The two men had previously documented a number of threats they had received that were designed to intimidate them into giving up their campaign. They refused, staying true to their values, and may now have paid the ultimate price for their commitment to their principles.

These high-profile deaths have a chilling effect on the media that extends well beyond these individual cases. Each death has a ripple effect, reminding hundreds if not thousands of other journalists of the risks of taking on powerful vested interests, especially in countries in which the rule of law is weak.

Self-censorship and safety

One of the most common conversations I have with the journalists I meet in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe is how much self-censorship they have to do just to stay safe. This is not just an issue for high-profile figures writing national stories. Local journalists and “stringers” can be even more susceptible to intimidation and harassment from local political bosses and criminal networks precisely because they are more economically vulnerable and attacks on them are less likely to receive national and international attention.

Having learned just how much news is deliberately not published on a daily basis, my favourite question to ask journalists working in undemocratic contexts is “what were the best stories you couldn’t publish this year”. The answers almost always include major corruption scandals, embarrassing information about senior government figures, and human rights abuses committed by the security forces. The ability of governments to prevent these stories from getting out undermines accountability. It also enables inefficient and incompetent regimes to maintain misleading reputations as decent and developmentally minded governments.

So why isn’t every death of a journalist front-page news? One answer is perhaps that it sadly happens so often that it is not an “event”. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, almost 1,500 journalists have been killed since 1991. Another is that each death is reported locally, but national borders and the competition for ratings between media houses mean that what represents a compelling story in one country does not in another.

This is something we can all help to change: by amplifying stories and news about the harassment and intimidation of journalists no matter where they are working, we can move this critical issue up the global agenda.

Given the dark details emerging out of Brazil and the importance of a free press for everything from democracy to development, the upcoming Commonwealth Journalist Association-UK Birmingham Student Journalists’ Conference on “Excitement and Risk: Prospects for Journalism in the Digital Age” could not be more relevant or timely. Held at the University of Birmingham and online on 30 June, the diverse and dynamic event will feature panels on everything from the challenges and opportunities opened up by new digital technology to how to report on violence and oppression.

These are issues that one would have hoped we would not need any longer, but sadly these discussions, much like journalists themselves, are as important in 2022 as they have ever been.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme), Professor of Democracy and the Director of the Centre for Elections, Democracy, Accountability and Representation (CEDAR), University of Birmingham

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options
Also in this in Depth:

The rise of Africa’s new ‘old men’

When Presidents Yahya Jammeh of Gambia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan were brought down within a few years of each other, Africa appeared to be getting rid of the old men that had dominated the political scene for decades.

The remarkable power of African elections

Africa will see seven major elections over the next six months, from Guinea on Sunday through to Uganda in February next year. Almost none will result in victories for the opposition.

How Western companies undermine African democracy

As the recent election campaign in Tanzania reached a climax, opposition supporters began to notice something strange.

Africa: ‘Repression & resistance are two key trends heading into 2021’

The last twelve months have been as intense and breathless as any I can remember, both in Africa and around the world.

Africa’s growing criminalization of the opposition

As I sat down to write this month’s column opposition leader Bobi Wine was casting his ballot in the Ugandan presidential election.

The great Magufuli mystery: What a missing president tells us about politics in Tanzania

It seems almost impossible in this age of social media and ubiquitous camera phones, but no one seems to know where – or how – Tanzanian President John Magufuli is.

Politics of death: The way we mourn leaders reveals what unites and divides us

Two countries have been mourning the deaths of very different leaders recently.

Can the courts protect democracy in Africa?

Judges have hit the headlines this month for upholding the rule of law in the most difficult circumstances. Against a backdrop of growing concern about democratic backsliding during the coronavirus pandemic, the willingness of the judiciary to protect the constitution in the face of intense political pressure is a source of hope and inspiration.

Smaller African states do not necessarily make better democracies

After publishing 'Democracy in Africa' back in 2015, I spent the next few years answering all kinds of questions about the prospects for democratic consolidation on the continent.

We cannot defeat racism without decolonisation

It has been a depressing month to be English. The defeat to Italy in the final of the UEFA European Championship was the latest in a string of famous losses.

Lessons from Africa: Is there such a thing as a ‘good coup’?

Is there such a thing as a good coup?

Zambia: Why five is the magic number when it comes to opposition election victories

The victory of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema in the Zambian presidential election was as dramatic as it was comprehensive.

Why we should be more understanding of African political leaders

The release of the Pandora Papers on 3 October embarrassed high profile figures around the world, exposing the offshore accounts of 35 world leaders. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it was their most expansive exposé of the secret financial arrangements of the rich and famous to date.

Chad, Guinea, Mali, Sudan… Can a coup be a springboard for democracy?

The recent spate of coups in Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan has sparked a flurry of media attention and concern.

Africa in 2021: The end of democracy?

The headlines suggest it has been a worrying year for politics in sub-Saharan Africa. But from #EndSARS to the election victory of Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia, Africans are pushing more democracy - not less - argues Nic Cheeseman.

What would an authoritarian Africa look like?

Yesterday a journalist asked me whether it was possible for an African leader to be a good democrat and an effective leader at the same time. It wasn’t the first time, and won’t be the last.

Africa in 2022: The danger of hegemonic instability

The end of December is often a time for reflection – in 2021 as much as any year. After reading the sad news of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s passing, a South African friend sent me a letter that looked back on a tumultuous year.

Africa: Why ideas and ideologies matter for politics

Political ideas and ideologies shape how leaders behave and are central to efforts to legitimise the exercise of power. From Donald Trump’s exclusionary nationalism to Vladimir Putin’s warped understanding of Ukrainian history, it is clear that beliefs shape policies and actions, often with dramatic consequences.

How (not) to persuade Africa to support Ukraine and denounce Russia

The reluctance of some African leaders to condemn Vladimir Putin and his invasion of Ukraine has been the subject of a large number of column inches over the last month.

Before criticising democracy abroad, Britain should take a look at itself

The UK is quick to offer advice and criticism to African countries struggling with democracy. But a new slew of anti-democratic bills from the 'mother of parliaments' in the UK suggests that critics should search closer to home.

Why Africa’s youth is not saving democracy

Year after year, the quality of democracy has deteriorated in African countries. The continent’s 'presidents for life' show no signs of making way for the younger generation. This raises fundamental questions, such as: Why is Africa getting more authoritarian as it is getting younger?

Kenya 2022: Lies, damn lies, and statistics

The outcome of the Kenyan presidential election now lies in the hands of the Supreme Court. William Ruto may be the president elect on the basis that he secured 50.49% in the first round of voting, but his hold on power is tenuous.

The rise of the opposition in Africa: Which governments are likely to fall next?

Governments in Africa are in trouble. Economic decline, more strategic opposition parties and increasingly sophisticated electorates have left ruling parties increasingly susceptible to election defeat.

Losing an election: The five stages of political grief

Losing an election can be traumatic. For candidates who have invested their hopes and dreams in winning office, it can be especially hard to take. Defeat at the ballot box is personally embarrassing, of course. But the sense of loss that some candidates feel is much deeper and more profound than that. It is the feeling that their whole vision of themselves and their future has been cruelly cut short, leaving them bereft and lacking purpose.

The failure of leadership in Britain: an update

The chaotic rollercoaster that is British politics took a new turn recently when it was announced that Conservative MP Matt Hancock will appear on the popular British reality television show 'I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here'.

Political year ahead in Africa: Which governments will lose power in 2023?

The dust is just beginning to settle on President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo’s farcical election victory in Equatorial Guinea. Not satisfied with ruling the country since 1979, he engineered one of the most one-sided elections the world has ever seen. This included giving himself 97% of the vote in the presidential election and preventing the opposition from winning a single legislative seat. Equatorial Guinea is now a one-party state in all, but name.

When Zimbabwe stops pretending to be a democracy

On Saturday 14 January, Harare based lawyer Kudzai Kadzere was beaten by members of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), leaving him with a fractured hand that required surgery.