The more the media wields clout, the more the problems for journalists. Year after year, reports are not only that more and more journalists are getting killed, but also that the overall scenario is worsening in respect of their functional freedom.

“It was an unprecedented year (in terms of killings)” was how the International Federation of Journalists termed year 2005 in its annual report. The reason: a record number of media workers died last year while on their jobs. As many as 89 out of the 150 media killings last year were of those who died in the line of duty; those who had been singled out for their professional work, the report said.

Not surprisingly, the maximum number of these killings were in Iraq, 35, for the reason that a war of sorts is going on there between militants and security forces, with journalists and other civilians caught in between. But, what about the Philippines, where the second largest number of deaths were reported? As many as 10 journalists were killed there last year, while within a matter of less than a month this year, two more have been killed.

The startling thing about the killings in the Philippines, as also in most other countries, is that these are linked to the professional activism of the journalists. Those who lost their lives were those who undertook investigations into drug trafficking, political and governmental corruption and organised crimes. That is the best side of journalism, as all good professionals take upon themselves the role of a social activist even as they do their jobs. A better society is their goal. Philippines shows that those who take their journalistic pursuits seriously may, more often than not, have to pay with their lives. The appreciable fact, however, is also that journalism is advanced in the Philippines and that the media there is giving hard times for corrupt politicians and the drug mafia.

In the Philippines, or Bangladesh, where too journalists had a bad time last year, or in many other third world countries, the problem is that the governments are hesitant to provide necessary backing to the media. As a journalist federation functionary noted,  “If we were nurses, if we were nuns, if we were …doctors working out in the field there would be immediate political concern. But because we are journalists and because our role is ambiguous as far as politicians are concerned, there is a tendency to ignore or downplay the crisis”.

Journalists who play second fiddle to the powers that-be often have a good time in those countries, or elsewhere for that matter. But, they are not advancing the cause of journalism in any way. Being on the right side of the government is the worst scenario for journalism to flourish. It is easy to praise, but difficult to criticise, especially when those at the receiving end are powerful. But, there is a charm to dissent; and it serves a social purpose and promotes a social cause. Perhaps no one has helped cleanse the society as much as journalists have done, both in the third world countries and in the developed world. That is to their credit; and that is what earns them the respect of the respective societies.

The report is also educative about the Middle East. The largest number of deliberate killings, 38, was recorded in the Middle East. All but three of them have taken place in Iraq, making the region by far the “world’s most deadly beat for reporters in the field”. It is not just the killings that matter; the media is facing a whole lot of restrictions in the so-called republics in the region. So much so, one wonders when they will ever have real practice of journalism as a profession, with a critical outlook that so marks its functioning in the developed and democratic world. Another surprising revelation is about the “absolute inertia” that marks the scene. Over 90 per cent of the killings that are recorded by the media watchdog, it is stated, “have not been properly investigated”. It would mean that the culprits would easily escape punishment. Is this the kind of reassurance that journalists, who serve a social cause, should get from the society and the establishment that be?

The report made special mention of the dangerous situations that exist also in countries like Pakistan and India, while the “trend of violence” is worsening in Thailand as well. Other problem countries are Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Nepal, apart from Colombia, Haiti, Mexico and Brazil.

What the report did not highlight are scenarios other than violence against journalists. If even a practising democracy like India gets mentioned as creating “dangerous situations” for journalists, one can imagine the scenario in the other third world countries. It, fo

nstance, is worth noting what kind of freedom or security exists for journalists in some of the central Asian republics, where governments are more autocratic in nature; or in the republics in the Middle East, or the ones in Africa for that matter.

The media watchdog wants the United Nations to mobilise governments against targeted killings. In fact, the world body should be doing much more. It must help create the necessary framework for journalists worldwide to function without fear or favour, especially as the media is widely regarded as an important pillar of the society — the Fourth Estate as it is popularly known — and holds an importance equal to the legislature, judiciary and the executive. Hopefully, year 2006 should be different.