In February, gunmen burst into the home of an investigative reporter in Slovakia and fatally shot him in the chest. In April, ISIS suicide bombers targeted the press corps in Kabul, killing nine people in a single attack. In June, a disgruntled reader entered the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Maryland and gunned down four journalists and a sales assistant. And in October, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and Saudi exile, was murdered and dismembered by government agents in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.
All told, at least 34 journalists were murdered in 2018, an 89 percent increase over the previous year. The number of journalists in jail is also at record highs—251 by the most recent count. Together, these statistics tell a damning story about the current era, the worst in recent history in which to be a reporter.
Journalists who take on powerful interests have always faced dangers. But even war reporters were once protected by the symbiotic relationship they had with those they covered. If guerrilla fighters or rogue governments wanted to communicate with the world, they had to talk to the press. Killing journalists, quite simply, undermined their ability to get their message out. That dynamic changed with the advent of the internet. By the mid-2000s, Mexican drug cartels had become savvy online users, as had terrorist networks like Al Qaeda. A decade later, the Islamic State developed an even more sophisticated communications operation, with sharp social media strategies, slickly produced YouTube videos, and even a glossy magazine, Dabiq, which published stories outlining the religious arguments for slavery and urging Muslims in the West to join the fight in the Levant. The group almost never interacted with journalists, except when they appeared as props in their elaborately staged execution videos. As governments have pushed ISIS back from its Syrian stronghold, the attacks the group once launched on journalists have become less frequent. Organized crime networks like the Mexican cartels and the European mafia are now the growing threat. And sometimes, as with Khashoggi, a state murders one of its own.
There is no single explanation for why journalists are being killed and imprisoned. But the disappointing response of the United States government to these crimes—its abrogation of its traditional role as model for a free press—helps explain why the perpetrators are acting with such impunity.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the White House acted when a journalist was killed abroad. In 2002, the Bush administration pressured Pakistani authorities to bring Al Qaeda operatives who’d killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl to justice. Omar Sheikh, a key figure in the murder and a British national, was convicted in a Pakistani court that year and remains in prison. When Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the entryway of her Moscow apartment building in October 2006, President George W. Bush personally phoned Vladimir Putin to express his dismay. The Obama administration kept up the pressure, raising the killing of journalists with Russian officials and sending diplomats to monitor the murder trials.
President Donald Trump has changed course. He spends more of his energy attacking journalists than he does defending their rights. His lack of concern for their fate was first apparent when MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough asked him in 2016 about journalists being murdered in Russia. “Our country does plenty of killing, too,” Trump said. Perhaps the most telling recent example of the president’s attitude is his remark about whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about Khashoggi’s murder. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he said, a comment that appears in the official White House statement, which goes on to call Saudi Arabia “a great ally in our very important fight against Iran” and the United States its “steadfast partner.”
Repressive leaders around the world are using Trump’s tactics. After President Trump called CNN and The New York Times “fake news,” the president of the Philippines used the same language to describe the Filipino news web site Rappler, which has exposed corruption in the Duterte government. Maria Ressa, Rappler’s editor, pointed out that when Trump rescinded the accreditation of CNN’s Jim Acosta, he was mimicking President Duterte’s actions earlier in the year with a Filipino reporter. Many other countries, such as Egypt, Russia, and Singapore, have embraced the term “fake news” and used it to justify restrictions on the media. In fact, the number of journalists imprisoned on charges of publishing “false news” (the term tracked by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization I lead) has more than tripled since Trump took office, from nine to 28.
A new generation of populist leaders now define themselves in opposition to the media. They attack their own journalists and are largely indifferent to the fate of reporters in the rest of the world. This attitude has consequences, or rather prevents consequences for people who deserve them. More than 85 percent of murders of journalists go unpunished, according to the 2018 Impunity Index, which was compiled by the CPJ. The key to fighting impunity is international pressure. And it’s been sorely lacking. Journalists face new forms of violence and repression, and, for now at least, few leaders, certainly not Donald Trump, are willing to stand up and defend them.