A year of living dangerously

Record number of journos killed in '07; Iraq claims 65

Journalists and other media professionals are dying in higher numbers and often in more harrowing circumstances than any time in almost two decades, according to reports out of Europe.

As 2007 wound to a close, a record 171 journalists and other news professionals had died in the line of duty, according to the latest numbers from the International News Safety Institute.

The media group said that, with more than three deaths a week, 2007 was the worst since it and the International Federation of Journalists began keeping such records in the early 1990s. "The death toll is appalling, unacceptable and still getting worse," INSI director Rodney Pinder said.

INSI is a Brussels-based non-profit coalition of media organizations, media freedom groups, unions and humanitarian campaigners. It says the circumstances surrounding journalist deaths often are unclear as only a handful — as few as one in 10 — are investigated and successfully prosecuted. Last year, at least 100 died in gunfire — one assassinated in a blaze of 50 bullets — 20 in bombings and four by beating. Two had their throats cut, one was tortured to death and two were asphyxiated.

Iraq was again the deadliest place for media personnel, with 65 slain — all but one, a Russian photographer, were Iraqis, the "unsung heroes" of the war coverage, INSI said. It added that since the start of the war in 2003, at least 236 journalists have died in Iraq.

Outside Iraq, the U.S. was the worst country for media fatalities in 2007: all but one of the nine American deaths were in accidents, including four when two news helicopters collided while covering a police car chase in Phoenix in July.

However, most of the casualties were not foreign war correspondents in hot spots, but domestic journalists who upset some local authority. The statistics suggest they are more likely to die like crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya — shot outside her Moscow apartment building in October 2006 — than the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in 2002 by militant Islamists in Pakistan.

INSI said a meager consolation from these figures is that the number of journalists apparently murdered because of their work fell for the first time in recent years, from 133 in 2006 — the previous record year for deaths — to 120. "In these awful circumstances we may grasp at straws, but it is slightly encouraging to see the fall in the number of suspected murders and note indications of increasing awareness of this issue by the international community," Pinder said.

Pinder said that the international community has finally begun to respond to the killings and their impact on freedom of expression. "Undoubtedly, 2007 has been terrible," he said. "But there have been some encouraging moves which, if followed through honestly and constructively, just conceivably could make the year a turning point."

Last month, the INSI joined with the IFJ and the European Broadcasting Union to appeal to the United Nations for more protection for journalists.

The IFJ is the world's largest organization of journalists, representing about 500,000 members in more than 100 countries, while the EBU is the world's biggest association of national broadcasters, with 75 active members in 56 countries. Their letter said that there can be no freedom of expression where journalists are murdered for doing their job.

At the same time, seven countries — Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and the U.S. — pledged to improve safety for journalists covering conflicts and to combat impunity for those who target reporters.

Pinder said that the issue is not just about the safety of journalists, but about the media's wider role in society. Journalism is vital to the workings of true democracy, he added.
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