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Home > Publications > Quill > Oppression: Supporting journalists where the press isn't free


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Monday, May 7, 2007
Oppression: Supporting journalists where the press isn't free

Commentary by Jeff South

KHARKIV, Ukraine – Since January, I have been living in Ukraine, teaching and learning from journalists as part of a Knight International Journalism Fellowship. I start most days with two staples: a steaming-hot mug of coffee to counter the bitter winter cold, and a careful perusal of stories from the country’s newspapers and news Web sites.

At first, I was shocked by articles describing attacks on journalists: In January, somebody torched the car belonging to the editor of an opposition newspaper in Kharkiv, where I live in eastern Ukraine. A few weeks later, in another big city called Dnepropetrovsk, thugs beat up a television reporter because he had aired a story critical of a local politician.

After a month, such incidents no longer surprised me.

For journalists here and in many countries, assaults are distressingly common — and stories are killed with bullets. In the United States, an angry newsmaker might chew you out, threaten a lawsuit or slam a door in your face; in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, you can end up in the hospital — or the morgue.

At least 81 journalists were killed for doing their jobs or expressing their opinions in 2006, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based group that defends journalists and fights censorship. It was the deadliest year for journalists since 1994, the organization said. In addition, at least 32 media assistants, such as drivers and translators, were killed last year.

In a report issued in February, RSF presented other grim statistics for 2006: At least 871 journalists were arrested; 1,472 journalists were physically attacked or threatened; 56 journalists were kidnapped; and 912 media outlets were censored.

‘Worst year on record’

The exact numbers are a matter of discussion among news organizations.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recorded a “confirmed total” of 55 journalists killed because of their work last year. The committee said it could not confirm a motive in the deaths of 30 other journalists. Two additional journalists disappeared while doing their jobs and may have been killed, the group said.

The International Federation of Journalists, based in Belgium, counted “at least 155 murders, assassinations and unexplained deaths of journalists and media workers” in 2006 and called it “the worst year on record.”

Reporters are killed with impunity, said Aidan White, the federation’s general secretary. “In all but a handful of cases, the killers of journalists get away unpunished. In many countries, there are no serious investigations because of police or judicial corruption or governmental negligence.”

No matter whose numbers you use, the conclusion is clear: Journalism is a dangerous profession, and reporters increasingly face retaliation in many countries from authorities who want to control news and information.

Robert Ménard, secretary general of RSF, sees a pattern beyond the disturbing toll of journalists killed, assaulted or imprisoned:

“Even more deplorable was the lack of interest, and sometimes even the failure, by democratic countries in defending everywhere the values they are supposed to incarnate. … Almost everyone believes in human rights, but amid the silence and behavior on all sides, we wonder who these days has the necessary moral authority to make a principled stand in favor of these freedoms.”

Ukrainian journalists I have talked to wonder the same thing. They say there’s little support for hard-nosed investigative journalism. Many publishers don’t have the stomach for it. Reporters question whether their stories are worth the risk of physical harm or jail, whether they will get published anyway, and whether anybody will care.

My most valuable role in Ukraine may be to assure reporters that people do care: that good journalism is vital to readers and to society; that a free press is critical to democracy; and that journalists here can count on at least moral support from their colleagues in the United States and other countries.

A ‘pessimistic’ situation

Thumb or scroll through the reports issued by international journalism organizations, and you’ll see what journalists around the world are up against.

“There are many reasons to be worried and pessimistic,” Ménard says.

Consider, for example, Eastern Europe and Central Asia: At least five journalists were murdered in former Soviet bloc countries in 2006. They included investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who had exposed human rights abuses by the Russian military in Chechnya; she was gunned down at her apartment in Moscow.

In Turkmenistan, a correspondent for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty died in prison while serving a six-year sentence for the “crime” of working with foreign media. Two other journalists were given similar sentences last summer and have not been heard from since.

Last year in Ukraine, several journalists suffered recriminations after shining a light on corruption: An editor’s house was set on fire, another was shot at, another was beaten up in his apartment. Journalists also accused the government of dragging its feet in investigating who ordered the abduction and murder of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose decapitated body was found near the capital Kiev in 2000.

In Latin America, RSF also sounded an alarm. Ménard said that in Mexico, nearly a dozen journalists were murdered last year; in Cuba, 24 journalists were imprisoned; in Colombia, three journalists were killed and a dozen others were forced to flee their region and sometimes the country; and in Brazil, a town official pummeled a journalist to death and a gunman wounded a radio commentator while he was on the air.

Knight Fellow Jim Breiner, retired publisher of the Baltimore Business Journal, describes on his blog — www.jgerardbreiner.blogspot.com — recent violence against reporters in Bolivia, where supporters of President Evo Morales attacked and injured 15 journalists. In response, journalists staged a protest march, wearing muzzles over their mouths.

Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that in some Latin American countries, where journalists perform their professional work defenseless, insecure and harassed by organized crime — especially drug traffickers — and every kind of fanatical political activist, their assassins walk freely in the streets and enjoy the disgraceful protection of impunity,” said Gregorio Salazar, a regional coordinator for the International Federation of Journalists.

In Africa, the situation is just as dire, According to RSF. Eritrea is secretly holding at least 17 journalists in squalid prisons scattered across the country; Ethiopia has imprisoned about 20 newspaper publishers and editors because they supported an opposition group’s challenge of election results; Sudan arrested more than 15 journalists to thwart coverage of the genocide in Darfur; and 30 journalists were arrested and a foreign correspondent was shot and killed while covering the simmering war in Somalia.

Asia “continues to be one of the most dangerous regions in the world to work as a journalist,” the International Federation of Journalists said. During 2006, the group said, 10 journalists were killed in the Philippines, four in Afghanistan, two in India and two in China. Four journalists were murdered in Pakistan; so were two family members of Pakistani journalists, a new tactic of intimidation.

And then, of course, there’s the Middle East. RSF said at least 65 journalists and media assistants were killed in Iraq last year. That brings to at least 146 the total killed since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Two journalists were killed in Lebanon when Israel attacked Hezbollah forces there last summer. In the Palestinian Territories, six journalists were kidnapped and used as bargaining chips, and eventually released; others were caught in violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah militants; dozens have been attacked for working for media attached to one faction or the other; and 17 media workers were shot and wounded by the Israeli army in 2006.

In the U.S. and Europe

Western governments cannot sit back and smugly think that they are doing all they can to protect freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The United States, France and Japan all slipped in RSF’s Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2006.

“The United States has been largely discredited,” for various reasons, Ménard said: holding an Al-Jazeera cameraman at Guantanamo for five years and counting, without charges; jailing Josh Wolf and other journalists for refusing to provide material or information to law enforcement officials; failing to thoroughly investigate the deaths of Iraqi journalists shot by U.S. troops; and supporting regimes that violate journalists’ rights. The United States ranked 53rd on the 2006 Press Freedom Index, down nine places from the previous year.

The European Union didn’t do much better. It ignores the “massive violation of the freedom to think, say and write things” in countries such as Tunisia, Ménard said. And European governments and institutions did not defend Denmark after a newspaper there published cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad: “They seemed to choose silence for fear of offending Arab regimes.”

Nor did Europe show much courage after Politkovskaya became the 21st journalist killed in Russia since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000, Ménard said. “The EU chose to cozy up to Russia, one of its major sources of energy.” Indeed, France gave Putin the Légion d’Honneur Grand Cross, instead of demanding a thorough and independent investigation into the reporters’ deaths.

What can journalists do?

In 1976, when Don Bolles of The Arizona Republic was assassinated by a car bomb, reporters from across the United States descended on Phoenix for a massive investigation into crime and corruption. The Arizona Project — organized by the then-fledgling group Investigative Reporters and Editors — sent the kind of clarion call about reporters that is usually associated with police officers: If you kill one of us, you’ll have to deal with all of us.

I wasn’t part of the Arizona Project; I was too young, too clueless, too selfish at the time. But in 1980, I ended up as a reporter for The Arizona Republic’s now-defunct sister paper, The Phoenix Gazette. I was covering courts, including an ultimately unsuccessful libel suit against Arizona Project participants. I was lucky enough to meet them and get a vicarious rush from the work they did.

I told a group of Kharkiv journalists recently about the Arizona Project. (I left out how controversial the project was: how some journalists considered the effort arrogant and vengeful; how The New York Times and The Washington Post refused to participate; and how even The Arizona Republic balked at printing the stories.)

Suppose journalists responded in a similar way to Politkovskaya’s execution. Imagine reporters from around the world converging on Moscow to finish her work and push for answers to who ordered the hit. Would that make a difference? I asked the group.

The reporters smiled politely. It’s a nice idea, they said, but rather naive. Russia is not the United States, where most officials, most of the time, follow the rule of law, including sunshine laws.

Fair enough. But what can journalists do to support their colleagues who face repression around the world?

First, get informed. Visit the Web sites of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, as well as the International Journalism section of SPJ’s site. Learn about the journalists who bear the brunt of oppressive governments, criminal syndicates and vigilante censors: bloggers being prosecuted in Egypt and Iran; foreign correspondents being booted out of Cuba and Zimbabwe; reporters being gunned down in Colombia and the Philippines; editors being thrown in jail in Russia and Benin; newsrooms being raided in Iraq and Malaysia.

Then, get involved. Through SPJ and other groups, you can write letters, sign petitions and support projects that defend journalists under attack throughout the world.

Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, for example, pay the legal fees for journalists who have been arrested on trumped-up charges. They also provide emergency evacuation and resettlement assistance when journalists must flee their countries. The International Federation of Journalists provides medical, travel and other assistance to journalists who have been injured, especially in global hot spots, and helps the families of journalists and media workers who have been killed.

The Center for International Journalists, in Washington, also supports journalists where the press is less than free. The center provides training to journalists and news organizations in developing democracies, and it honors individuals who have done outstanding journalism under difficult circumstances.

In 2006, the award recipients included Drago Hedl, a Croatian newspaper editor who reported about war crimes in the former Yugoslavia; Shadha al-Jubori, who as head of the BBC’s Arabic-service bureau in Baghdad covered the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the Sadr City insurgency; and Bagila Bukharbayeva, the AP’s Central Asia correspondent who covered human-rights abuses in her homeland of Uzbekistan.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that the Center for International Journalists administers the Knight International Journalism Fellowships Program, which sent me Ukraine.)

You also can get involved in global free-press issues by doing what journalists do best: Write. Do stories about the attacks on journalists and the public’s right to know. Let your readers, viewers and listeners know that the rights they take for granted are routinely and brutally violated in many other countries. Ask questions about the repression of journalists abroad when candidates are running for Congress or corporations announce international plans.

In our globalized world, heavy-handed control of the press continents away can be a local story: When crime cartels stop reporters in Latin America from investigating narco-trafficking or reporters in Eastern Europe from exposing mob connections, the drugs and corruption are more likely to arrive on U.S. shores. When governments thwart a democratic press and free expression in Asia or the Middle East, the resulting resentment and political instability can eventually blow up anywhere.

There are natural opportunities to explain the challenges journalists face abroad. When Beijing hosts the Olympic Games in 2008, journalists should write not just about the sports and pageantry but also about China’s treatment of the press: According to RSF, Chinese authorities regularly block broadcasts from the BBC and Radio Free Asia and tightly control Internet content; at least 31 journalists and 52 bloggers are in prison; about 40 journalists were assaulted and two killed last year; and there were at least 25 incidents of arrests, threats or assaults against members of the international press.

When a journalist is targeted, the victim isn’t just an individual; society as a whole suffers.

Like the killing of a police officer or a prosecutor, the murder of a journalist threatens a society by undermining one of the primary means of holding people accountable, the Committee to Project Journalists notes on its Web site.

“A journalist is the voice of his or her community,” said Pedro Díaz Romero, former human rights prosecutor for Colombia’s attorney general’s office. “To take the life of a journalist is to shut down a channel of information for the community. And after one journalist is killed, you may not need to kill another, as a threat or act of physical intimidation may be enough to send the message to the community at large.”


Jeff South is an associate professor in the School of Mass Communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. He has been a reporter and editor at newspapers in Texas, Arizona and Virginia. From January until July, South is serving a Knight International Journalism Fellowship in Ukraine, training journalists in new media, civic journalism and other skills. He is blogging about his fellowship at jeff-south.blogspot.com

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