Unesco reports fewer journalists were killed in 2020/21, but the rate of impunity is dangerously high

Unesco reports fewer journalists were killed in 2020/21, but the rate of impunity is dangerously high

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has found that 117 journalists were killed around the world in 2020 and 2021 – the lowest number of deaths of any reporting period since 2008.

This is according to highlights from the 2022 Unesco Director-General’s Report on the Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, published on 2 November, the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.

The full report will be presented on 24 and 25 November before the Intergovernmental Council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication of Unesco. The report is published every two years. 

While 2020 and 2021 saw the lowest number of deaths compared with any other reporting period since the report’s first publication – according to the Unesco Observatory of Killed Journalists – a total of 76 journalists were killed between 1 January 2022 and 30 October 2022, making 2022 already the deadliest year since 2018. 

In 2021, the largest number of fatal attacks (23 killings) occurred in Asia and the Pacific, representing 42% of killings recorded worldwide, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 25% (14 killings). 

The third-deadliest region was Africa with 18% (10 killings). A rise in killings in Central and Eastern Europe (three killings) and Western Europe and North America (three killings) was also registered in 2021.

According to Unesco data, in 2021, the countries with the highest number of fatalities were Mexico (with nine killings), Afghanistan (with seven killings) and India (with five killings). The previous year, the highest number of fatal attacks were also recorded in Mexico (10), Afghanistan (six) and India (six). 

According to the Unesco Observatory of Killed Journalists, no journalists were killed in South Africa in 2020 and 2021. 

Although fatalities have been decreasing in countries both experiencing and not experiencing armed conflict, the Director-General’s latest report confirms the continuation of a long-term trend – that since 2016, journalists have become less safe in countries not experiencing armed conflict than in countries with conflict. 

In 2012, at least 79 journalists were killed in countries experiencing armed conflict, while 45 were killed in countries with no armed conflict. This is in stark contrast to data from 2021, when 20 journalists were killed in countries experiencing armed conflict, and 35 were killed in countries not experiencing armed conflict. 

“Killings in countries not experiencing armed conflict represented 64% of total killings in 2020-2021,” read the report.

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Nature of attacks on journalists

Among the 117 journalists killed in 2020-2021, at least 91 (78%) died while away from their immediate working environments or working assignments, but likely died in connection with their profession, according to the report’s highlights.

“Most were killed in the privacy of their own home or while travelling,” it added. 

Past reports have shown that most victims were local journalists covering local stories, and analysis of the killings during the 2020-2021 period confirms this trend. 

In contrast to previous reports where TV journalists were often the largest group of victims, during the 2020-2021 reporting period, cross-platform journalists have become the most vulnerable to fatal attacks. 

In 2021, the killing of cross-platform journalists increased by 20% from 2020 levels, and now account for 41% of total journalist fatalities.

“This may be linked to the changing nature of journalism and the media landscape, with many journalists today working on multiple platforms,” the report read.

Additionally, freelance journalists constituted 19% of total killings over the 2020-2021 reporting period. 

Attacks on female journalists

In 2021, the percentage of female journalists killed almost doubled, increasing to 11% from 6% in 2020, despite an overall reduction in the number of journalists killed. 

“This worrying development may be a reflection of women journalists being subject to online gender-based attacks, which often spill over into offline violence, putting their safety at risk,” read the report.

Available data from 2022 indicate that as at 30 September this year, 11% of killings so far have been female journalists, “which suggests the continuation of this violent trend into 2022”.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Jacob Zuma’s private prosecution of journalist Karyn Maughan puts media freedom on trial” 


“Impunity for crimes committed against journalists continues to be extremely high,” according to the report. However, Unesco has observed a decrease of 3 percentage points since 2018. In 2022, the global impunity rate was measured at 86%, compared with 89% in 2018. 

Unesco, therefore, has observed a very slight but steady upward trend in the percentage of resolved cases worldwide.” 

In 2022, Unesco sent a request for information to the 65 countries in which killings of journalists were registered by the organisation between 2006 and 2021, and for which Unesco records showed no evidence that the judicial cases had been resolved. 

The request concerned 1,076 out of the 1,284 killings that Unesco recorded between 2006 and 2021, according to the report.

Of the 65 countries contacted by Unesco, 42 countries (65%) responded. 

Of these, 36 countries provided information on judicial procedures after killings of journalists, and six countries acknowledged receipt of the organisation’s request. 

A total of 23 countries did not respond. DM


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