By Sara Torsner

It is increasingly understood that journalism safety is a multi-layered problem that must be addressed with reference to a wide range of threats and hostile environments facing  a very diverse community of journalists. Yet current methods of measurement and assessment are not fully capturing the complexity of journalistic risk. Mapping the scale and nature of the problem through the systematic collection of data is a crucial step towards establishing an empirical evidence base that can serve to tailor interventions aimed at protecting journalists.

My PhD research is focused on the design of a tool for evaluating Journalism Safety Trends, so I have been examining in detail the current approaches being used to conceptualise, measure and monitor journalistic risk My research indicates that more comprehensive methods of measurement are required in order to capture the multidimensional nature of risk to journalists.

These findings concerning the methodological challenges of measuring journalism safety have recently been published in the anthology ‘The Assault on Journalism’ (Eds. Ulla Carlsson and Reeta Pöyhtäri) and will be presented during UNESCO’s upcoming Academic Conference on the Safety of Journalists, to be held in Jakarta on May 3-4. I will be speaking on a panel about new concepts, measures and agendas within journalism safety research.

Current methods of measurement show a prioritization for gathering count data on the killing of journalists. While counting how many journalists are killed on a yearly basis is an important measurement of the ultimate form of censorship, killings constitute only the proverbial tip of the iceberg of a whole range of different types of threats. Also, a country level count can tell us in a generic way whether the problem of killings is getting worse or if it is improving from year to year, but the figures themselves tell us little about the underlying reasons behind shifting trends.

The UNESCO research conference will run in parallel to the World Press Freedom Day international conference in Jakarta on May 1-4, whose main theme will be the role of the media in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies. The event will also highlight the protection of journalists and the fight against impunity. The conference programme revolves around the belief that ‘journalism can thrive only in an environment that is enabling towards free, independent and pluralistic media’ and ‘safety in journalism’. The agenda points clearly towards the need to identify the particular characteristics of the enabling or disabling environment within which journalists practice their profession.

In my research I argue that to develop more sophisticated approaches to the monitoring of abuses against journalists, and the assessment of environments that are hostile to free journalism, it is crucial to understand and measure journalistic risk not only in terms of  threats or acts of  violence or intimidation, but as a complex phenomenon that occurs in the context of the standing of journalists within the society as well as other elements of societal fragility that can be measured.

This means that apart from recording data on all forms of attacks on journalists we must also measure factors related to the extent of freedom to practise journalism within societies. For instance, we should consider aspects such as the social status of the journalist and journalism (including the degree of media freedom), as well as the legal and political status of journalism (including legal provisions, respect for  the rule of law, administrative capacity and political will).

The systematic monitoring of attacks on journalists has recently been identified as a priority within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. One of the suggested indicators to evaluate progress towards SDG 16.10, which seeks to ‘ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements’ is the number of attacks and other human rights violations against journalists and media workers.

This programme seems to call for fresh efforts to monitor a wider range of threats against journalists in all societies across the globe. There is also evidence to support the conclusion that, in order to be able to answer questions related to when and why journalists become targets, it is also necessary to devise methods to measure and evaluate societal contexts which are hostile to free and independent journalism.

Sara Torsner is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching the design of a Journalism Safety Trends tool with CFOM.  She is also assisting in the development of the recently established Journalism Safety Research Network.