By Sara Torsner

Journalistic safety has long been a relatively unexplored topic by academia, but as NORDICOM Professor Ulla Carlsson said at the book launch of The Assault on Journalism, we can now begin to see the emergence of a new academic research field where journalism safety is increasingly examined across different disciplines. Ulla Carlsson, the editor of the anthology, was speaking at the academic conference on the safety of journalists held during the World Press Freedom Day celebrations in Jakarta, May 1-4.

The Assault on Journalism is itself evidence of this growing interest in researching journalism safety. It stands as a summary document of research presented at the first academic conference on journalism safety, held a year ago at World Press Freedom Day in Helsinki in 2016. The volume also gathers a number of more recent research articles and think pieces on the topic of journalism safety.

In her article CFOM Chair Jackie Harrison writes about the Journalism Safety Research Network (JSRN), which was another outcome of the Helsinki conference. ‘To understand the complexity of journalism safety in the contemporary world, knowledge is the key and a knowledge network is the locksmith’, she argues. Research can address the problems of journalism safety from many important perspectives and approaches that help to build up a clearer picture over time.

The conference on Journalism Safety in Jakarta showcased a wide variety of research, written from a range of perspectives on the topic of journalism safety.

Presenters explored various contexts where journalists are under attack, including in countries such as Indonesia, Honduras, Nigeria and Russia, and the varied nature of threats and impediments from actors who include radical and criminal groups, governments and other political stake holders.

Ilmari Hiltunen, PhD researcher at the University of Tampere, sets out the evidence that journalists are targeted even in countries with high levels of media freedom. His research covers the variety of forms of intimidation practices that can create a culture of self-censorship among journalists even in Finland, which is consistently rated among the countries with the highest degree of media freedom. His findings show, for instance, how harassment is being “crowd sourced” as extremist movements and populist politics are spreading.

Research presented in a panel on “the public as a threat” highlighted how public perceptions of the value of journalism affect actual levels of protection, or the lack of it. Focusing on the Zimbabwean context, Zvenyika Eckson Mugari, Deputy Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences, Midlands State University, described how the absence of education or policies that encourage media literacy as a foundation for an informed citizenry impedes any understanding of the proper role of journalism and why journalists need special protection measures. That is especially so in a society where the majority of the population lives in rural areas with no access to media sources other than those which reflect the message put out by the government.

Audience-based research carried out by Julie Reid, Senior Lecturer at the University of South Africa, similarly discussed the barriers to fostering public awareness about journalistic safety in the South African context, where the media is often scapegoated by powerful political interests.

Presenting the recently published UNESCO report the ‘Protection of Sources in a Digital Age’ Julie Posetti, Research Fellow, University of Wollongong, outlined what she described as ‘the emergence of a convergence of threats against the protection of sources’ in the context of the war on terrorism. Julie Posetti argued that there is a need to get across to academia the importance of the issue of source protection, as well as an urgent need for research findings to be translated into policy action to halt the negative trend.

This growing body of academic research on issues of journalism safety is contributing to closing knowledge gaps by approaching the topic from a range of perspectives. Moving forward it will however be important to facilitate increased exchange and dialogue among academic researchers and the larger community of media practitioners and other actors and experts working with journalism safety.

As is pointed out by Jackie Harrison ‘work within disciplinary boundaries can of course produce highly valued specialist knowledge, but many contemporary complex problems require both depth and breadth of knowledge, as well as new methodological innovations, as well as input from those who have practical knowledge and experience in order to build research capacity.‘

The need to build research capacity and enable the exchange of expertise across disciplines and professional capacities becomes apparent when considering the need for systematic data collection on different types of abuses against journalists. This is the case not least when considering the project of gathering statistical data related to Sustainable Development Goal indicator 16.10.1, which is intended to measure the ‘Number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel (…) in the previous 12 months’ (including data also on trade unionists and human rights advocates).

My own research, which focuses on describing and potentially predicting shifting trends in journalism safety in relation to wider criteria of societal fragility, highlights the importance of understanding the problems of journalism safety as a complex phenomenon interlinked with the social standing of journalism.

This means that in addition to collecting data on different types of abuses against journalists we must also develop a deeper understanding of how contextual factors, such as societal fragility, affect the democratic watchdog role of journalism.

Such an attempt to measure journalism safety in a comprehensive way depends not only on the development of efficient measurement approaches, but also on efforts to build platforms of exchange between academics, civil society organisations, practitioners, media institutions and UN agencies.

The JSRN is in my judgement an important step in this direction. The network promises to be valuable when it comes to informing concerted actions, and to developing a deeper understanding of the specific roles and competences of the different actors.

To achieve optimum results, I believe it will be necessary to tap more effectively into the extensive knowledge base that has been developed over time within civil society organisations concerning the monitoring of abuses against journalists, carrying out advocacy, running projects in the field and assisting journalists in distress. Closer collaboration and synergies will be important to academia not only for selecting relevant case studies but also to develop collaborative approaches to research, and mapping and proposing effective policy measures to address the complex problems of journalism safety.

Combining this type of practical expertise with scientific research approaches could increase research capacity and potentially also address issues such as scarce resources while addressing tasks such as pooling existing datasets measuring abuses against journalists, as well as the development of new comprehensive methodological approaches to measuring and collecting data on threats to the safety of journalists. In these ways the JSRN could, as Jackie Harrison notes, become ‘part of the molecular structure of the antidote to those who would suppress or restrain free and independent news 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.

Posted: 30 May 2017