#Impunity Day: new data shows disturbing trends in media attacks ahead of elections

2023-11-02. New data from UNESCO reveals chilling new trends in the increasing – often lethal – attacks on journalists; notably, that they are more vulnerable during elections. WAN-IFRA warns that the conditions for aggression are created well before voting day.

by Lucinda Jordaan | November 2, 2023

New data published by UNESCO to coincide with the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists shows that attacks and crimes are particularly high during electoral periods and require enhanced measures from governments to ensure freedom of expression and access to information. 

Data collected from January 2019 to June 2022, shows that 759 journalists and media professionals were attacked while working 89 elections around the world.

Of these, 42% (320) were attacked by law enforcement agents, and 29% of attacked journalists (218) were women.

This is detailed in a new report: The role of law enforcement agents: ensuring safety of journalists during public demonstrations and elections, released today, with a fact sheet highlighting disturbing trends.

Key Trends

  • Attacks against journalists in connection with the coverage of protests, public demonstrations and riots were registered by UNESCO in at least 101 countries from January 2015 to August 2021. Since 2015, at least 13 journalists have been killed in such contexts.
  • A majority of the attacks have been committed by security forces, and included beating and arbitrary arrests. At the same time, a significant number of physical and verbal attacks were perpetrated by demonstrators and people attending the protests.
  • During elections and public demonstrations, several government authorities authorized internet shutdowns and disruptions, censorship of the media and critical voices, as well as digital surveillance of journalists – in the name of public order and national security.
  • Attacks against journalists related to elections were registered by UNESCO in the context of at least 89 elections in 70 countries around the world from January 2019 to June 2022. 759 journalists and media professionals were attacked, 42% (320) of whom were attacked by law enforcement agents, and 29% of attacked journalists (218) were women.
  • According to UNESCO’s recent discussion paper, “The Chilling: Global trends in online violence against women journalists”, intimidation and violence against women journalists online have increased.

“The data shows that the media are particularly vulnerable to attack during election periods, seemingly throughout the world, but in reality the pressure is intensifying on media well in advance of a single vote being cast,” says Andrew Heslop, Executive Director: Press Freedom, WAN-IFRA.

“Incumbents increasingly use their power to make favour with, or to exclude, media according to their political agendas during the course of their terms.

 ‘While attacks on the press may intensify during an election period, it is the overall environment that has been cultivated in the lead up that often sets the tone.’

“This can be seen in the allocation of government advertising contracts, pressure on government-aligned businesses to stay clear of critical or opposition media, restricting access to government press conferences, or favouring in other ways media that support the government agenda. All of this feeds into a climate that undermines public interest journalism and seeks to control the narrative, especially in the run up to elections.”

See Also: Weakness of democracy undermines calls for justice for journalists on Impunity Day

These sentiments are echoed in a recent communiqué from Teresa Ribeiro, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Representative, on Media Freedom during Elections: “All too often, however, those running for elected positions or holding public office are the ones that infringe upon the basic principles of media freedom. Some politicians and public figures use targeted and systemic smear campaigns to promote specific political agendas, serving their private interests rather than the public good.

“It is a disturbing development that undermines the credibility of journalists and diminishes trust in the media by the public. It also has a detrimental effect on democratic culture, contributes to polarisation within societies and exposes journalists to greater risks of harassment and violence.”

This tweet from award-winning Canadian journalist Rachel Gilmore illustrates that impact.

Journalists’ Safety: Why?

The statistics also reflect a disturbing trend: most of the attacks have been committed by security forces. This includes beating and arbitrary arrests. This is detailed in the new report, which also offers a trove of recommendations on enforcing the law while protecting the right to freedom of expression.

“Focusing on the role of law enforcement agencies in protecting journalists and ensuring a safe environment is crucial, but in many political systems a lot of the pressure also comes from those outside of traditional security or law enforcement areas – the political cadres or supporters of political parties who are paid or incentivised to operate in ways that intimidate or undermine reporting,” notes Heslop.

“While it is very important to support state institutions in order to strengthen the long-term democratic process, attention must be given to the role and conduct of all actors within these systems to ensure media are not targeted for short-term political gains.”

See Also: Sitting upon the dead 

Plus: WAN-IFRA Press Freedom Advocacy Campaigns

And: WAN-IFRA Journalist Safety

Source: UNESCO: “The role of law enforcement agents: ensuring safety of journalists during public demonstrations and elections

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