Across the world today, media freedoms are increasingly under threat.
Reporters Without Borders has recorded the deaths of over 900 journalists in the past decade, with two thirds taking place in countries not at war but at peace. This presents a concerning trend, with journalists themselves increasingly being deliberately targeted as they pursue truth and justice.
Our work has also shown that almost three quarters of the 167 countries included in the 2020 Legatum Prosperity Index experienced declining levels of freedom of speech and access to information over the last decade. Across the globe, journalist safety, freedom from government censorship, political diversity of media perspectives, and freedom of opinion and expression, were all at lower levels in 2020 than they were in 2007.
The 2021 Courage in Journalism Award
The Mexican journalist Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez, who was killed in March 2020, was named as the recipient of the 2021 Legatum Institute Courage in Journalism Award.
Maria Elena was the co-founder of news website El Quinto Poder and correspondent for El Diario de Xalapa and El Heraldo de Poza Rica. Her work often focused on corruption among local politicians and the activities of local criminal groups, including kidnappings and disappearances.
Maria Elena was based in the Papantla region of the state of Veracruz, widely recognised as prized territory for criminal groups who use the state highway for the transportation of illegal goods and drugs and trafficking. Reporting within the region is considered to be a death sentence, with Veracruz being the most dangerous state in Mexico for journalists.
As a result of her investigative work, Maria Elena was frequently threatened and targeted – surviving a total of three assassination attempts before she was killed.
Despite the huge personal risk, Maria Elena continued her work from a deep commitment to the people, believing that the mission of her work as a journalist was to serve her community. She was keenly aware of the risks to her life, but her conviction of the need to seek truth and report accurately for the benefit of all Mexicans gave her perseverance.
On 12th March 2020, Maria Elena published an article revealing corruption in local elections and highlighted the murders of four mayoral candidates in the local municipality of Gutiérrez Zamora. Less than three weeks later, Maria Elena was shot and killed by two gunmen. As of yet, no prosecutions have been made.
Maria Elena’s daughter, Maria Fernanda received the Award on behalf of her mother, saying how proud she would have been of this recognition of her work and of her courage.
Demonstrating remarkable courage and commitment, Maria Fernanda has followed in her mother’s footsteps to work as a journalist. In the video below, she speaks about her mother’s immeasurable legacy, and the extraordinary courage that she demonstrated in her pursuit of truth, here:
Every year, the Courage in Journalism Award is given posthumously to a journalist who has been killed as a direct result of their work and whose death has had significant impact.
David Wesson, Legatum Institute Managing Director, commented: “Maria Elena Ferral Hernandez is a very worthy recipient of this Award – she was undoubtedly a beacon of hope in a county beset by violence, where journalists are frequently deliberately targeted. Maria Elena’s commitment to the truth, despite the ongoing personal cost, and her refusal to be intimidated speak volumes of her inner strength and courage.
“We owe Maria Elena, and all journalists who work tirelessly in the pursuit of truth, a great debt. Sadly, in too many places around the world, journalists can still pay the ultimate price for free, fair and accurate reporting. This Award honours the legacy of those men and women and shines a light on the countries where press freedoms are still constrained either by crime, corruption, war or state-led censorship.”
The Nominees of the Courage in Journalism Award
In reviewing the journalists who were killed this year, our research uncovered a total of 44 journalists who were killed between October 2019 and October 2020. To learn more about these courageous men and women, please click here.
The 2020 recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award was Raed Fares, the Syrian activist and journalist, who worked tirelessly to draw international attention to the ongoing violence in Syria. You can read more here.
The 2019 recipient of the Courage in Journalism Award was Jan Kuciak, a Slovakian investigative journalist whose death sparked political upheaval in Slovakia. You can read more here.