A high price for bad news

More journalists were killed in 2006 than any other year on record

If you'd like to live out 2007, you could do worse than go to Iraq as a western news correspondent. Don't be an Iraqi or part of a camera crew, though, or your chances of surviving unscathed dwindle.

No western reporters died in Iraq last year, although the British cameraman Paul Douglas and sound engineer James Brolan were killed in May in a car-bomb attack against US soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division, with whom they were embedded. The other 32 journalists killed in the country were, according to the latest report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), all Iraqi. Reporters with the protection afforded by a major media employer are obviously safer, but not outside the fortified compound or Green Zone.

Kimberly Dozier of CBS was badly wounded in the attack that killed Douglas and Brolan. And in January the ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt took a lot of shrapnel when a roadside bomb hit the Iraqi army convoy they were with.

Elsewhere in the world, more journalists are thought to have died in 2006 than in any other year since records have been kept. Most worked in their own country. All the organisations that compile statistics of journalists killed on the job agree that last year was the worst on record, though not about the numbers. CPJ reports that 55 journalists died in action last year. Of those killed in Iraq, 30 were Iraqi, most of them murdered rather than killed accidentally. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders puts the global figure at 81, the World Association of Newspapers at 109 and the International News Safety Institute at 137. The highest figure comes from the International Federation of Journalists, with 155 "murders, assassinations and unexplained deaths".

The spread between the CPJ and IFJ totals leaves 100 killings too many or too few. CPJ says its process of verifying deaths is rigorous. Until it is certain that a journalist was on the scene for work or killed for expressing an opinion, "CPJ classifies the case as 'unconfirmed' and continues to investigate the motive for the murder". CPJ also applies tougher standards to US firepower. For example, it did not include 16 Serbs who died in the bombardment of Radio Television Serbia in Belgrade in 1999, appearing to accept, along with the US and British governments, that RTS was a "legitimate target". So, the Serbian colleagues did not make the 1999 list, but three Chinese reporters, staying at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade when the US bombed it that May, did.

Most of the journalists killed during the 2003 invasion of Iraq were western, and their killers invariably American. Last October, a British judge concluded that Terry Lloyd, the ITN correspondent killed along with his cameraman and interpreter in March 2003, had been the victim of an "unlawful killing". Now, the balance has tipped. Aswan Ahmed Lutfallah, a CBS cameraman working for Associated Press Television News, was shot and killed in Mosul last month. He, like most staff in the field, was Iraqi. Iraqis have become the Gurkhas of the western press corps: heading into areas where westerners (who would be killed or kidnapped the moment they walked out of their compounds) cannot go to bring back images, interviews and information.

Those needing serious protection include journalists in Russia, Mexico, Colombia and the other kleptocracies, where reporters are murdered for exposing the rackets used by the the powerful to plunder nations' wealth. When a journalist such as Anna Politkovskaya is assassinated, Vladimir Putin orders the police to find her killers. But no one would be surprised to discover, if regime change came to Moscow, that Putin himself was responsible for Politkovskaya's death.

The reports of last year's press killings are all clear on one point: journalists who do not toe the line have no friends in high places. Governments do not protect them. They would be safer doing what most western journalists bravely do for a living these days: write restaurant reviews or profiles of the rich and famous.

We should honour those who risk their lives to tell people what they need to know - rather than what they need to buy.