One way to understand the virulence of corruption is to look at what happens to journalists who expose it.
The best source for tracking the fate of those journalists is the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ. It’s an independent nonprofit group founded in 1981, whose mission is to “promote press freedom worldwide.” It does that partly by tracking and reporting attacks on journalists because of their work.
The CPJ sorts its data by years, locations, types of attacks (journalists who are murdered, jailed, or have disappeared), and what each journalist-victim was reporting.
Here’s a look at the data for the past five years for journalists working on stories about corruption.
Since 2017, 60 journalists have been killed for reporting corruption. The CPJ’s methodology defines murder as “the targeted killing of a journalist, whether premeditated or spontaneous, in direct reprisal for the journalist’s work.”
Among those 60 murdered journalists, two were in Russia, three in Brazil, four in Haiti, nine in India, and 13 in Mexico.
What about journalists imprisoned because of their work on stories about corruption? The CPJ’s count for 2017 is 105, 95 for 2018, 98 for 2019, 103 for 2020, and 92 for 2021. There’s no number yet for 2022 because the CPJ’s prisoner census is taken each year at midnight on December 1.
What are journalists who report corruption charged with? Usually, it’s criminal defamation, being “anti-state,” or simply making someone in power angry; that category is called “retaliation.”
Two journalists covering corruption are missing. One from Mexico has been missing since 2009, and the other from Ukraine has been missing since 2010. The CPJ says many missing journalists are feared dead but aren’t classified as killed because no body has been found, and because the CPJ considers “the views of the journalist’s family and whether publicity could harm the journalist.”
Journalists who report corruption are also at risk of government surveillance. Last year, the Pegasus Project (investigators from the Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International) revealed that since 2016, governments had targeted at least 180 journalists with smartphone spyware in India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco, France, and about 45 other countries.
The Council of Europe said journalists covering corruption are particularly at risk of secret government surveillance, along with journalists covering national security issues and human rights.
In its 2022 report on the protection and safety of journalists, the Council of Europe said surveillance has a “particularly baleful chilling effect on journalism” by hampering journalists’ ability to protect the confidentiality of sources.
The European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1996 in Goodwin v. United Kingdom that a basic condition for press freedom is journalists’ ability to protect their sources. “In cases where, for example, an abuse of office, corruption or any other perversion of private or public power is in issue, the journalist should not be compelled to disclose his sources.”