Neglecting lessons learned from Daniel Pearl

Sure, there’s a lot more case evidence of press freedom abuses. In fact, much of the research in the report is excellent, detailed and telling. “On June 28, unidentified gunmen killed two journalists in a small town near Acapulco, Guerrero--Juan Francisco Rodrigues Cortez and his wife, Maria Elvira Hernandez Galeana. Rodriguez Cortes was a reporter for the local newspaper, El Sol de Acapulco, and the secretary general of the local chapter of the National Union of Press Editors. He and his wife also edited a local weekly newspaper,” reads the human rights country report on Mexico.

But what is missing throughout the human rights reports on more than 190 countries (besides a chapter on press freedom conditions in the United States) are the all-important descriptions, identifications and assessments explicitly required by the Daniel Pearl law. Besides a description of the status of press freedom conditions in countries and an assessment about the independence of their media, the law demands an identification of press violations by categories from physical violence to indirect sources of pressure to censorship by governments, criminals and armed extremist groups. The Daniel Pearl law further demands, “in countries where there are severe violations,” an indication “whether government authorities…participate in, facilitate, or condone such acts.”

These indications are essential. CPJ worked with legislators for years to have such language finally incorporated into law. Out of the more than 850 journalists who have been killed on the job since 1992, according to CPJ research, no less than 29 percent of them have been killed by government actors, and no less than 30 percent of them have been killed by armed rebel or extremist groups.

At the same time, countless government authorities claim to uphold press freedom. But the proof is in the prosecution, or the lack thereof in all too many cases. Just how often do the murderers of journalists get away it with it? In nearly nine out of ten cases worldwide. The assassinations cut across geographic as well as political lines. There are at least 55 unsolved journalist murder cases in the Philippines, at least 18 in Russia, at least 13 in Colombia, and at least 10 in Sri Lanka, according to CPJ research.

A dedicated reader plowing through State Department human rights country reports going back a number of years would eventually glean this information after hours of eye-glazing work. But the intent of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press law, and the explicit requirements in it, call for Foggy Bottom to do exactly what diplomats are often loathe to do: aggregate information and make assessments that would provide conclusions about press freedom conditions and the parties responsible for violating them in a clear, concise and readable way.

We know that hundreds of foreign service men and women worked hard to include more case evidence of press freedom violations than ever before in this year’s Country Reports on Human Rights. We appreciate their work as well as that of their editors. But what is still is missing is the political will – located at the top of Foggy Bottom on the building’s seventh floor, and about seven blocks away, too, at the White House -- to make the assessments that would help members of congress, journalists and other make sense of the cases themselves.

Without such assessments, to read just the evidence of press freedom abuses one after the other is a process that may itself feel bludgeoning to any reader. Without the assessments, the reports are not in compliance with either the spirit or the letter of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press law.

Frank Smyth is the Washington representative and journalist security coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ is a worldwide watchdog that accepts no government funds as it defends the rights of journalists everywhere to report the news without fear of reprisal.

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