Promoting press freedom in bloody times



Is this really necessary? Consider this. Three out of four journalists killed around the world didn’t step on a landmine, or get shot in crossfire, or die in a suicide bombing. No, nearly 75 percent of the 795 journalists killed worldwide since 1992 were murdered outright --gunned down by an unidentified assailant like Russia’s Anna Politkovskaya, or executed by their kidnappers like the Journal’s Daniel Pearl.

How often do the killers get away with it? In nearly nine out of ten cases, or in 89 percent of journalist murders around the globe the perpetrators enjoy blanket impunity where no one is prosecuted whatsoever. Most of the journalists were targeted over their efforts to report on matters from politics to corruption. Only in four percent of journalist murder cases worldwide have both the physical and intellectual authors of the murders been brought to justice.

One-third of murdered journalists were slain by terrorists or other armed groups, according to CPJ research dating back to 1992. But even more journalists, 36 percent, were murdered by government officials of one kind or another or their paramilitary allies. The death toll of 30 journalists out of a total of 57 people murdered last month in Maguindanao in the Philippines is what sent this year’s figure for journalists killed worldwide to a record high. But the case also seems consistent with other trends. The only suspect arrested so far is the son of the Maguindanao governor and brother of the governor for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the same province.

Russia is another nation with many unsolved journalist murders. Last week 70 members of the House from both sides of the aisle and led by the House Foreign Affairs ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida signed a letter to President Obama about Russia's "alarming situation facing proponents of human rights and the rule of law.” In September the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a comprehensive report, Anatomy of Injustice, detailing the case evidence and prosecutorial shortcomings in the murders of no less than 17 journalists in Russia since just 2000. Since the report went to press two more journalists have been murdered. In only two of all these cases have the physical killers been convicted, one of them of a lesser crime. Moreover, the alleged masterminds in all 19 cases remain at large.

“It is a sad irony,” noted in the report’s preface author and journalist Kati Marton who also sits on CPJ’s board.  “While the world celebrates the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia itself is relapsing to some of its Soviet ways. In fact, for journalists, Russia is a more dangerous place now than it was during the Cold War.”

Russia is hardly the only nation where press freedom conditions either remain under stress or have gotten worse. Earlier this month CPJ announced that there are at least 136 journalists in jail around the world. Today 50 percent of them are bloggers, Web-based reporters or online editors, rising from 45 percent last year. And most of them are also freelancers, reflecting an ongoing transition from large, traditional to small, independent media breaking news worldwide.

China continues to be the world’s worst jailer of journalists with 24 behind bars, a dishonor it has held for 11 consecutive years. Next on the list with 23 journalists in jail is Iran, which this year in the wake of a recent election crackdown surpassed Cuba, which now has 22 journalists incarcerated.  The tiny African Horn nation of Eritrea follows with 19 journalists, all of whom are not only jailed but have also been held incommunicado without access to either their families or the International Committee of the Red Cross in most cases for more than eight years.

Imprisonment and murder, of course, are only among the most obvious ways to restrict the press. The Daniel Pearl Act would require the State Department to inform Congress about many other measures in between like failing to renew a major opposition broadcaster’s license in Venezuela, or having a journalist disappear after being arrested in the Gambia, or putting  a journalist under constant surveillance in Tunisia, or threatening a journalist in Belarus that she’ll end up like Anna Politkovskaya, or cutting a journalist with a razor blade and rolling her down a hill in Nepal.

The language in both the bills that passed the House yesterday and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month have dropped a previous provision that would have provided funding to support independent media in select nations. Instead the legislation’s sole focus now is to broaden and deepen Foggy Bottom’s focus on press freedom. It’s more than needed in today’s troubled times.

Note: 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.