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RESEARCH: How country regime type can translate to a dangerous environment for journalists

As democracy has weakened globally over the last quarter century, local authoritarians became the chief threat to journalists, a condition many Latin Americans will recognize. We must highlight local journalists’ contributions to democratic accountability and protection of rights as we pressure national governments to reverse this trend.


Article author Sallie Hughes (Courtesy)

Article author Sallie Hughes (Courtesy)

Those of us who work as journalists or researchers specializing in Latin America know well the dangers journalists face in many contexts in the region. In the last quarter century, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras gained notoriety for being among the most lethal countries in the world for journalists. What we may not know is that these countries are emblematic of wider global trends.

Overall, as in Latin America, the world has become more lethal for journalists in the quarter century since killings of journalists worldwide have been systematically documented. From 1992 to 2016, 1,812 have been killed on the job worldwide and the average annual rate of killings has increased – from 48 annually in 1992–2001, to 72 per year in 2002–2011, and 91 per year in 2012–2016, according to data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that we independently verified. What explains this? My research partner Yulia Vorobyeva and I tested alternative explanations with CPJ data we independently verified with the help of a diligent research assistant, University of Miami journalism student (now graduate) Dylan Ceder.

Analyzing 1,812 killings of journalists worldwide from 1992 to 2016, we found overwhelming evidence that a particular type of political system –very familiar to Latin Americans and Latin Americanists– were most lethal for journalists. Countries with “hybrid” political regimes mixing liberal and illiberal (or authoritarian leaning) elements create by far the most dangerous context for journalists worldwide. Meanwhile, a particular spatial configuration of political authority within those countries, local political conditions described as subnational authoritarianism, clarified the logic of the killings.

Territorially uneven hybrid political systems feature national-level norms that explicitly guarantee press freedom and condemn illiberal practices. These national norms encourage journalists, many of whom formed professionally during periods of political liberalization, to monitor power and denounce abuses. However, exposing corruption, failed security policies or other abuses becomes hazardous where accountability is weak and local authorities have incentives to attack critics to silence them. The collusion of criminal, business, and political interests often flourishes where local governments, security forces and criminal organizations are less restrained, and strong correlations between coverage of these topics and the killing of journalists in hybrid regimes provide stark evidence of the peril this creates for journalists.

What are the implications of our findings? 1) For academics, they offer further support for addressing real world problems with multidisciplinary theories and techniques, in this case, from political science, the sociology of journalism and social-spatial analysis in geography. 2) For policymakers, advocates and International Governmental Organizations, they suggest redirecting discourse and action to spotlight local journalists’ contributions to human rights and democratic accountability. While other journalists also sometimes confront danger, it is local journalists who disproportionately pay the dearest price.

The rest of this post presents findings from the full article on the study published recently in a premiere, peer-reviewed journal for journalism research, called Journalism: Theory, Critique and Practice. “Explaining the Killing of Journalists in the Contemporary Era: The Importance of Hybrid Regimes and Subnational Variations.” Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism. Find it at: https://doi.org/10.1177/1464884919885588.

Here are some key findings:

  • Finding: Between 1992 and 2016, most killed journalists worldwide were intentionally murdered rather than killed in combat situations or during a dangerous assignment. Indeed, fully 72 percent of 1,790 killings with verified causes of death were intentional murders.
  • Finding: More than nine in 10 journalists killed worldwide were domestic journalists rather than international correspondents. We considered journalists who worked for international media as domestic journalists if they were nationals of the country because local hires do not leave the country and often work for domestic media as well. Thus, their level of exposure to risk is more akin to domestic journalists.
  • Finding: Most killed journalists died in countries with hybrid political regimes and the proportion of deaths in these countries increased over time.

We classified the political regimes of countries in which journalists died using Polity 4’s regime measure, which considers criteria such as restraints on executive power. We found 1,047 died in countries with hybrid political regimes, 486 in the regimes classified as most authoritarian, 22 in those classified as most democratic and 245 in regimes that Polity 4 did not classify due to armed conflict between supporters of differing regimes. Except for 2006–2007, when journalists’ deaths in wartime Iraq climbed sharply, hybrid regimes have been the most dangerous for journalists in each year of the 21st century. Statistical analysis of year-to-year change found that killings in hybrid regimes increased every year without interruption since 2008.

  • Finding: More than seven in 10 journalists died outside of national capitals, as subnational authoritarian theory predicts.
  • Finding: Most journalists worldwide were killed while covering newsbeats that could expose the wrongdoing of subnational authoritarians or de facto subnational powers. These include politics, corruption, and crime. Ninety-five percent of those who covered corruption, 92 percent of those who covered crime, and 71 percent of those who covered politics were intentionally murdered.
  • Finding: Most journalists died in countries with uneven elections quality and civil liberties protections across their territories. Statistical tests on unevenness data from the Varieties of Democracy database were clear. As respect for civil liberties or the quality of elections across national territories became more uneven, the number of journalists killed in a country increased.
  • Finding: Statistical associations between murdered journalists and indicators of political regime hybridity and subnational authoritarianism are significant and run in directions (positive, negative) predicted by subnational authoritarian theory.

Mapping dangerous regimes

Table 8 from our article, reproduced here with permission, maps lethal attacks across regime types and levels of subnational variation in democratic norms and practices. This data visualization by University of Miami Interactive Media graduate student Alyssa Fowers shows that the most dangerous contexts for contemporary journalists are hybrid regimes with high unevenness in respect for rights and middle levels of unevenness in electoral accountability, followed closely by hybrid contexts with moderate variation in rights protections and high levels of variation in the quality of elections. A second tier of dangerous contexts are authoritarian regimes with variable rights protections, which may indicate that authoritarian social controls are unstable, as other research has found.

 Reprinted from: Sallie Hughes & Yulia Vorobyeva. 2019. Explaining the Killing of Journalists in the Contemporary Era: The Importance of Hybrid Regimes and Subnational Variations. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism. Article first published online: November 5. doi.org/10.1177/1464884919885588.

Reprinted from: Sallie Hughes & Yulia Vorobyeva. 2019. Explaining the Killing of Journalists in the Contemporary Era: The Importance of Hybrid Regimes and Subnational Variations. Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism. Article first published online: November 5. doi.org/10.1177/1464884919885588.

In contrast, findings confirm democracies with greater electoral accountability and rights protections provide greater safety for journalists. The lives lost in these democracies exceed quantitative measurement, as do all the deaths. Nevertheless, the mapping shows that conditions for journalism in democracies and democratic hybrids vary enormously and in ways that profoundly affect the professional performance and personal well-being of journalists.

The spread of hybrid political regimes as liberalization stalled – or backslid – across the last quarter century involved spatial variation in the performance of democratic institutions, including those supporting a monitorial press. Findings from this study and others suggest journalists sometimes resist encroachment on democratic norms and that resistance carries potentially far-reaching consequences for politics, governance and human rights. Studies in some of the most dangerous countries for journalists find that exposés can significantly affect elections’ results, providing the opposition with issues to organize around, or empowering the judiciary or investigative functions of congress. A process of local democratization can also ensue when journalists’ investigations are backed by mobilization of local civic organizations or opposition parties. Thus, safeguarding journalists may well safeguard liberalism.

*Sallie Hughes is an Associate Professor of Journalism and Faculty Director of the Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas, both at The University of Miami. Her academic work on issues related to journalism, journalists and risk is widely published.

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