As 2013 came closer, the global press freedom industry started girding up its loins by putting the finishing touches to the biggest media foray of the year, the annual list of killed journalists. Like Olympic runners waiting to fly out of their starting blocks, its main players cling desperately to the hope that their geeky number crunching will this year make the headlines.
The International Press Institute proved a bit too quick when it was first to bolt as early as November 21st declaring 2012 the “deadliest year on record for journalists”. Not to be left behind, the rest of the posse threw away their embargo and started the furious chase, each of them trying to attract the attention of journalists by even writing their headlines for them.
Reporters sans frontières followed suit on December 19th, hoping to dazzle newsrooms with the same screaming headline “deadliest year”, but with the strap line “since RSF started reporting it”. One crucial difference is that they only counted 88 journalists killed against the much higher figure of 132 provided by the IPI. Surely both could not be the deadliest.
At around the same time, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists also claimed the year to be the deadliest on record, meaning since they started keeping records. Their tally was even lower at 67. However the CPJ at least did not make any extravagant headlines, opting for the much safer “Journalist deaths spike due to Syria, Somalia”. It however tried to steal a march on its competitors by offering off-the-shelves angles, such as “the number jumped by 42%” although they have only counted 67, or “a third of those killed were web journalists”, or “23 journalists killed in combat-related crossfire make up 34 percent of the worldwide death toll this year, about twice the historical average”. Whether this gave them more column inches we would never know.
Even organisations on the poorest end of the spectrum gave it their best shot. The usually inaudible Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign published the highest figure of them all – 139 killed journalists – with their Secretary-General Lempen, scraping the bottom of the barrel, describing it as the “bloodiest for journalists since the Second World War”. As for the International News Safety Institute, it hardly raised any passion with a tepid “third worst on record”, that is since it was born in 2003.
Despite the good will of journalists wanting to write about the killing of their colleagues with compassion and remind the world of the sacrifices made by these brave men and women, many ended up being confused and disheartened by such unbefitting display of disunity among the foot soldiers of the press freedom industry, each with its own agenda and its own figures. What to make of all this number crunching?
In the end, most of this jousting bunch seemed unable to grasp that it is not just about numbers, although it is important that the world knows about the extent of this tragedy. They trip over each other and fight to the wire with their own version of the shock horror message, but none, however, is capable to organise the fight necessary to put an end to this tragedy. Most, except the IPI, have no members and yet they speak on behalf of journalists.
The IFJ also published its list on 31st December as it has done every year since 1989, even before some of these organisations were born. It did it without the desire to sensationalise or to scramble to be first of the bunch. What mattered for us most is our global campaign to press governments to take up their responsibility for the protection of journalists and put an end to impunity. The very fact that a government is sensitive is, of course, the point. The neuralgic nerve should be pressed hard and not just once a year but everytime a journalist is killed. Effectively this will have to be done by us trade unions. This needs unflinching organisations on the ground, dedicated members in every corner of the world, relentless campaigns – something most of the press freedom industry will never have.