The end of 2023 came with good news in terms of lethal violence against journalists around the world, with the exception of conflict zones: a significant decrease in the number of these kinds of attacks. The decreasing trend, which also occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, does not necessarily mean an improvement in the conditions for practicing journalism or a reduction in attacks faced by professionals, according to organizations that are experts on the subject.
According to figures from Reporters Without Borders (RSF, for its acronym in French), seven journalists were killed in the region last year for reasons that could be related to their work. In 2022, the same organization recorded 26 homicides in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Although with different numbers and methodologies, the trend was also noted by organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and UNESCO. CPJ recorded six murders of journalists in Latin America and the Caribbean during 2023, while in 2022 it counted 30 homicides. UNESCO also found a decrease from 43 homicides of the press in the region in 2022 to 15 murders in 2023.
A “positive” hypothesis about this decrease, as described by Guilherme Canela, head of the Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists section at UNESCO, has to do with the commitment of the different actors involved in the issue, such as States and organizations such as UNESCO, to improve the safety conditions of press workers.
“There has been a permanent effort by various stakeholders for many years, but I would say particularly since the United Nations Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity was approved, to develop actions that could be leading to to better prevention, protection and justice enforcement policies in relation to crimes against journalists,” Canela told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
Artur Romeu, director of RSF's Latin American office, agrees that greater awareness of violence against journalists, both by States and by the media and reporters themselves, may be one of the reasons for this decrease.
“There is no single reason [for the decrease in murders], but there are several hypotheses,” Romeu told LJR. “I think there is a trend among journalists, and the media in general, [in which] they have become more aware of the risks associated with their work and have begun to adopt risk analysis measures and prevention strategies in a more frequent and structured manner. In the same way, several States have reinforced to some extent protection mechanisms, monitors of violence against the press or actions of prosecutors and other public institutions to reinforce a response to the issue of violence against the press."
However, for both Canela and Romeu, there are also negative hypotheses that could explain this decrease, ranging from self-censorship and the increase in other forms of attacks.
“One of the hypotheses is that perhaps in the areas where there was a very high volume of murders against journalists, the journalists in these areas may have made a decision to self-censor and therefore the murders decreased because the journalists stopped cover sensitive things,” said Canela, who emphasized that these are hypotheses, which should be investigated in depth perhaps in the academic world.
A third element highlighted by Canela is the increase in other forms of violent attacks on journalists that hinder journalistic practice and the distribution of information. According to UNESCO, media professionals are facing online violence and harassment – an issue that particularly affects female journalists –, an increase in the use of the justice system to take action against journalists, as well as the imprisonment or threat of imprisonment of journalists, among other attacks.
“Yes, the number of murders decreased, except in conflict zones, but other types of crime against journalists increased,” said Canela, who pointed out that it is necessary to study if there is a relationship between these elements.
Precisely, the increase in other forms of violence against journalists is for Romeu an indication that the decrease in their murders does not represent an improvement in the conditions under which they carry out their work in the region.
As he explained, RSF continues to monitor “many cases” of threats, death threats, assaults, attacks during demonstrations, cyberbullying, among other attacks.
“I think it is important to reinforce that the murders of journalists are not the only indicators of the security conditions for journalistic practice,” Romeu said. “It is really a broad chain of violence that continues to deeply affect people in terms of security, physical integrity, but also emotional integrity.”
If it’s true that self-censorship led to the decrease in lethal violence against journalists, one of the negative aspects that most worries experts is the creation of zones of silence. UNESCO, which has seen a significant increase in murders of journalists in conflict zones – intensified by fighting in the Middle East – has identified these zones of silence.
However, they can also be seen in Latin America and the Caribbean. Romeu explains that the frightening effect of a murder on other journalists has a serious impact on local information and communication. According to him, they have seen this in countries like Mexico –the “deadliest” country for journalists in the region –, where the actions of armed groups in coordination with political interests seek to silence journalists who do hyperlocal work through blogs, Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups or more traditional pages.
This phenomenon has also been seen in regions of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador, Romeu said.
“Murder has an effect that transcends, it impacts the collective imagination, it has a silencing effect that goes beyond the person directly impacted,” he said.
This lack of local information even in non-conflict areas also has important effects on people's daily lives. The main one, according to Canela, is that the powerful (be they States, companies, organized crime) stop being accountable.
“What happens is the possibility that bad effects from the use of power that is not in line with human rights and democratic principles may occur,” Canela said. These effects include more cases of corruption, human rights violations, environmental crimes, human trafficking, among others.
“When, in the social context, we silence the role of those institutions that are central to the systems of checks and balances, which includes journalism, the potential most direct consequence is that these problems […] grow,” Canela said. “And more broadly, it is a process that undermines the democratic structure when this occurs systematically.”
In this sense, the call from organizations such as UNESCO and RSF is for the main actors, such as States, to intensify their actions to counteract violence against the press.
Journalists killed in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2023
Organizations for freedoms of the press and expression have different methodologies for recording the murder of a journalist as being linked to the exercise of their profession. For this reason, the numbers tend to vary.
Below, LJR presents the names of journalists murdered in 2023 that were reported by UNESCO, RSF, CPJ, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR and/or by local organizations. It is not clear in every case if the murder is linked to their work as a journalist.