The Coastal Post - June, 1996

The World Is A Dangerous Place For Journalists

BY MARC BOSSART

In the fast-paced information age we live in, independent gathering and processing of facts and opinions remains a dangerous affair in many corners of what is commonly trivialized as the Global Village. Many journalists around the globe still risk their lives doing nothing but their daily job. Often, authoritarian regimes equate independent journalism to anti-government propaganda, or to subversive activities, and clamp down hard on any dissenting voices in the media. On the other hand, nationalist zealots, militant rebel groups and merciless rulers of the criminal underworld target media representatives as annoying obstacles to their cause. In over 100 countries resident reporters on duty are subject to censorship, threats, physical attack, kidnapping, imprisonment and murder as a direct consequence of their work. Even the daily news we consume, provided by the globe-trotting reporters of Western media outlets, are often hammered out under menacing circumstances.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based nonprofit organization, has just released its 1995 annual report. The document, a survey on the risks reporters face in today's world, reads like a gruesome guide through the international gallery of tyrants and oppressors. It chronicles in detail the journalists killed or imprisoned in 1995 while pursuing their work, and lists the countries according to frequency of incidents. The findings suggest that in most cases restrictions of press freedom concur with bleak human rights conditions.

Last year, 50 journalists were killed in the line of duty. As in 1994, Algeria once more leads the macabre ranking. In the large North African country, 24 reporters were killed by Islamic radicals battling the government and, specifically, the secular media. Russia follows with seven victims who either got caught between the front lines in the Chechnyan civil war, or were assassinated for reporting on corruption and the criminal underworld. In Brazil, four journalists were murdered because they had uncovered cases of corruption and human rights abuses within several local police corps.

Over the past ten years, the countries with the highest aggregated death tolls among journalists are the former Yugoslavia, Colombia, Tajikistan and the Philippines. However, the annual report stresses that these numbers are not an accurate indicator of lack of press freedom in any particular country. In the most repressive societies, murders of independent journalists are unlikely because their genre is extremely rare.

No less befuddling is the outcome regarding the record number of 182 journalists imprisoned in 1995. Among the top-ranking nations one finds close political allies and/or important trading partners of most OECD countries (Organization for Economic Development: U.S., Canada, Japan, several E.C.-members). For the second year in a row, our NATO ally Turkey ranks as the worst offender in this category (51 reporters in jail). Turkey's record of human rights abuses is long and ugly. Reporting on political events or social issues can still trigger a host of unpredictable consequences.

In recent years Turkey's treatment of the Kurds has drawn the close attention of international human rights organizations. Until the end of 1995, the highly centralized government continued to deny even limited autonomy to the Kurdish population in the southeast where the Turkish Army is mired in a virtual civil war against the militant Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK). Correspondingly, the security forces have cracked down ruthlessly on critical voices in the media.

Most Turkish journalists are imprisoned for working on behalf of leftist or pro-Kurdish newspapers and magazines. An unbiased account on violent acts perpetrated by the security forces or on systematic military strikes against Kurdish rebels could lead to years in prison. In one case reported by Amnesty International, the mere mention of the word "Kurdistan" led to the arrest of a journalist.

For many years, appeals by Western allies to a number of Turkish governments for the respect of international standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms have been lukewarm at best. Ever since the days of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Europe and the U.S. have viewed the land between the Bosporus and the Caucuses mountains as a secular bulwark against Islamic and Communist expansion, with the Turkish military as its loyal and repressive guardian. In recent years, the harsh treatment of the Kurdish population had become a thorny issue in negotiations between Brussels and Ankara for closer economic cooperation. European reservations notwithstanding, the E.C. admitted Turkey to the European tariff union last January, well aware of the fact that it constitutes a promising marketplace of nearly 60 million people.

To nobody's surprise, China ranks third with 20 imprisoned journalists (Ethiopia holds second place with 32). Since the Tiananmen uprising in 1989, Chinese security forces have arrested numerous pro-democracy activists including writers and publishers who have been sentenced to long prison terms without charge. With the exception of a fledgling democracy in the "renegade province," the uncompromising gerontocrats in Beijing seem to fear nothing more than dissenting fellow citizens who call for political glasnost, democracy, pluralism of opinions and respect for human rights. Although its human rights violations are countless and well-documented, the People's Republic still enjoys U.S. trade privileges otherwise only granted to conciliatory trading partners. Despite loud objections from a wide array of critics, the President is likely to renew China's Most Favored Nation Status (regarding tariffs and trade) this coming May, thus playing to the grandstand of potent corporados and tireless free traders. In their minds, unrestricted access to a market of 1.1 billion potential consumers must not be jeopardized by clear-cut diplomatic and economic pressures on behalf of freedom and democracy. Nor could several of our main industries forego China's huge pool of cheap, non-unionized labor (just take a quick look at where your sneakers were made).

Kuwait is in fourth place with 18 reporters and writers currently in jail. All of them were accused of collaboration for having worked on a newspaper published by the Iraqi occupiers in 1991. Ironically, Kuwait is considered the most tolerant country among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and United Arab Emirates. In Kuwait, the political opposition and its newspapers are tolerated "as long as they are ultimately loyal to the ruling al-Sabah clan." But it is Saudi Arabia, the region's military and economic powerhouse where democracy and press freedom are virtually unheard of, that exerts tremendous leverage over important media outlets serving the Arab world. Several international radio and TV stations as well as wire services, newspapers and magazines are owned by members and associates of the Saudi royal family. King Fahud himself apparently hires or dismisses editors at will, and foreign journalists are denied entry visas on a regular basis. Thus, the Saudi rulers keep a tight lid on independent voices in the media and suppress the formation of political opposition at home.

The Persian Gulf states are another example for the double standard applied by the Western allies in asserting civil liberties. In fact, the lack of freedom of expression and continued disrespect of human rights would render these countries subject to austere diplomatic and economic measures (as in the case of pariah nations such as Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Myanmar), were it not for the region's geopolitical significance and, most of all, for its precious geological underground so coveted by the industrialized world. A welcome side effect of such benevolent treatment are the billions of petrodollars that keep flowing into Western banks and support our export (arms) industries.

Needless to say that the facts and numbers mentioned above understate the true dimensions of press freedom violations around the world. In addition to killings and arrests, thousands of cases of abuse, harassment and intimidation, many of them not reported, occur each year worldwide and make independent journalism a very risky job. For more information, contact the Committee to Protect Journalists (212) 465-1004. Internet: http://www./cpj.org.