3 May 2004
Press freedom: Deliberately targeted for doing their jobs
The freedom of the press is an essential element of the protection of human rights. Despite many issues and challenges, a fully functioning free press operates as the "fourth estate", exposing abuses of power and holding the other pillars of society to account. UNESCO places the media above all forms of communication and defines it as "an essential component in the building of a world at peace."
In reality, the press in most parts of the world is not completely free. Different situations present different threats and restrictions on press freedom, some more deadly than others, but there are few places where journalists are fully free to seek out and expose the truth.
Kofi Anan, speaking on World Press Freedom Day last year, said that most journalists who die in the line of duty around the world are murdered -- "deliberately targeted, as individuals, for exposing corruption or abuses of power; for opposing entrenched interests, legal or illegal; in short, for doing their jobs." In times of political strife, journalists are often among the first victims when groups turn to violence to achieve their aims.
The situation for journalists is stark in some of the conflict scarred countries of Africa. In 2002, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Zimbabwe one of the world's worst places to be a journalist. Almost all foreign journalists have been expelled from the country, Zimbabwean journalists are among the thousands who have fled the Mugabe government seeking asylum
In 2002, the government enacted the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Many of the provisions of the AIPPA contravene international human rights standards, particularly in relation to freedom of expression. The Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper, was closed in September 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled that the newspaper was publishing illegally because it had not registered with the state-controlled Media Information Commission (MIC), a requirement of AIPPA. The MIC has refused to register the paper, which remains closed at the time of writing.
An AI report, Zimbabwe: Rights Under Siege, issued in 2003 catalogued abuses against journalists in Zimbabwe. "In 2002 alone, approximately 44 media workers were arrested and five media workers were physically attacked. Two media houses were petrol-bombed in 2002, bringing the total number of bomb attacks on the physical infrastructure of the independent press to four since 2001."
The most dangerous place in the world
However, for just over a year, the most dangerous place in the world for journalists has been Iraq. Of twelve journalists listed as killed since the beginning of the year by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF -- Reporters Without Borders), five of them have been killed in Iraq. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), 38 media workers -- journalists, cameramen, photographers and translators -- have been killed since the beginning of the war.
The circumstances surrounding these deaths have highlighted worrying trends in US policy towards journalists. The US Army has publicly stated that it prefers embedded journalists, journalists who travel with troops receiving greater access to information and protection from the army. However, these journalists are usually restricted in the kinds of stories they can cover, as they are barred from leaving the unit and are rarely given access to people outside.
Journalists who reject the option of "embedding", preferring to try and do their job freely, have said that they are increasingly afraid that they are being deliberately targeted by the coalition forces as well as armed groups. A lack of proper investigation of incidents by the US forces has done nothing to dispel this view, despite denials by US spokespeople.
What is clear, however, is that the coalition forces are failing to protect journalists in Iraq. An investigation by RSF into the US attack on the Palestine Hotel in Iraq, in which two journalists were killed, found that, while there was no evidence that the hotel had been deliberately targeted, the army was "criminally negligent". According to the RSF report, "Two murders and a lie" published in January this year, soldiers in the field were never told the hotel was full of journalists. "The question is whether this information was withheld deliberately, out of contempt or through negligence."
In the most recent incident on 18 March, in which two journalists working for the Arabic satellite news channel Al-Arabiyya were killed, the US military concluded that they were killed in an "accidental shooting" by soldiers who opened fire within the "rules of engagement". These rules of engagement have not been made public, despite numerous calls for the military to do so.
The killings happened in the context of continuing criticism of the two main Arabic channels, Al-ArabiyaAl-Jazeera, by the coalition. Muwaffak al-Rubai, a member of Iraq's Governing Council, accused the stations of inciting violence, lying and being "anti-coalition". The Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Dan Senor described a report about US forces targeting women and children as "poisonous". Al-Arabiya was previously banned from working and its bureaux in Baghdad were closed for two moths. Al-Jazeera was banned from covering the activities of the governing council for a month at the beginning of the year.
In a meeting with the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon made the occupying forces' policy chillingly clear. "The journalists know that they had to write the truth in return for the protection they were given. If they write rubbish, they might find themselves less well looked after."
This lack of protection has put journalists at increased risk from armed groups in Iraq. The GuardianTimes reporter James Hider on 14 April this year as saying that the threat of kidnapping has become so acute that the majority of western journalists are no longer venturing beyond Baghdad. There have also been a number of incidents of journalists being detained by the coalition forces, such as the Korean journalists detained in March and the four Iraqis working for Reuters and NBC who were held for three days in January and, according to Reuters, subjected to sleep deprivation and other "uncomfortable treatment". newspaper reported
The Geneva Conventions specifically state that journalists are civilians and should be protected as such under the Conventions. The consistent failure of the coalition forces to acknowledge their duty to protect journalists, whether or not they agree with what they write, and the attacks upon them have been condemned by the NUJ.
Caught in the line of fire
The situation does not necessarily improve once open conflict has ended. An Amnesty International action for World Press Freedom Day highlights the increase in acts of repression and intimidation by the authorities against journalists in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Despite optimism that the transitional period in the DRC, which began in June 2003, would lead to an improvement in respect for the right to freedom of expression, the indications are that the situation is worsening.
"Journalists in the DRC have suffered serious human rights abuses in pursuing their profession. Some journalists have been killed, tortured or "disappeared". Many are routinely threatened and harassed. But the most prevalent and systematic official tactic to stifle legitimate press comment and to intimidate journalists has been the (ab)use of criminal laws governing libel and similar offences. Under these laws, the DRC authorities have unjustly arrested, detained, imprisoned or imposed punitive fines against hundreds of journalists in recent years."
In Venezuela, journalists are being caught in the line of fire, according to the General Secretary of the IFJ, Aidan White. Over three days at the beginning of March, the IFJ reports that two cameramen were shot, a photographer was injured by rubber bullets and two other reporters were hit by tear gas and sharp items. They also report that a female journalist was assaulted and received death threats and two other journalists were stripped of their equipment and then punched by government supporters.
Amnesty International has criticized the Venezuelan government for failing to effectively investigate incidents of political violence attributed to both government and opposition supporters. "The impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators encourages further human rights violations in a particularly volatile political climate."
Less deadly pressures
In countries removed from bitter conflicts, journalists generally face less deadly pressures on their work. However, this does not mean that they are free to find and print the truth.
In China, there was an increase of 60 per cent in the number of people detained or sentenced for Internet-related "offences" in 2003 compared to the previous year. A number of those who have been arrested are journalists, such as Liu Haofeng, who was sentenced to three years for "endangering state security" by writing two articles that appeared on a China Democracy Party website based in California. Mu Chuanheng, one of the first Chinese dissidents to use the Internet to express his views, served a three-year sentence for "incitement to subvert state power".
Tao Haidong was sentenced to seven years for "incitement to subvert state power" for posting three books he wrote criticising the Communist Party on the Internet and Xu Wei has been tortured and ill-treated as he serves a 10-year sentence for posting articles of political and social concerns on the Internet. (People's Republic of China: Controls tighten as Internet activism grows)
The authorities in Viet Nam have also targeted Internet users. At least ten people, including Nguyen Vu Binh, a 35-year-old journalist and writer, have been arrested and some sentenced to long prison terms for using the Internet whilst criticising the government or sharing information with overseas Vietnamese groups. (Socialist Republic of Viet Nam: Freedom of expression under threat in cyberspace)
In Cuba, 23 of the 75 dissidents sentenced to long prison terms last year were journalists. They included members of independent journalist organisations, cooperatives and news agencies not recognised by the authorities, including Carmelo Agustín Díaz Fernández, president of the unofficial Agencia de Prensa Sindical Independiente de Cuba (the Independent Union Press Agency), Ricardo Severino González Alfonso, President of the unofficial Sociedad de Periodistas "Manuel Marquez Sterling" (Manuel Márquez Sterling Journalists' Society), and Cuba correspondent for RSF and Raúl Rivero Castañeda journalist and director of the unofficial press agency, Cuba Press, which he founded in 1995. (Cuba: One year too many: prisoners of conscience from the March 2003 crackdown)
Fourteen journalists in Eritrea have been held in secret incommunicado detention since the authorities clamped down on increasing criticism of the government and calls for democratic reform in September 2001.Ten of them were arrested in September 2001, when the government also shut down all the privately-owned news media, which remain closed, and four others have been arrested since then. (Eritrea: Arbitrary detention of government critics and journalists)
In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Free Press Journalists Association (EFJA) was banned in November 2003. Its president, Kifle Mulat, who also edits an independent newspaper, has been jailed four times and frequently receives threats. Over the past twelve years, the EFJA has documented arrests of hundreds of private-press journalists, editors, publishers, owners and distributors, with scores sentenced to prison terms. It has campaigned against the government's proposed new Press Law, which would be even harsher than the current 1992 law that was entitled "Proclamation for the Freedom of the Press".
Iran's judiciary relies on vague laws relating to defamation and national security that are frequently used to close publications and try and imprison journalists and commentators. Limits to freedom of expression and association are exacerbated by a flawed judicial structure. It lacks true independence and requires judges to draw both on written and non-codified, traditional law, while also holding them personally responsible for damages.
In many areas of the country, judges also serve as investigators, prosecutors and judges on the same case: an astonishing lack of separation between prosecutorial powers and judgement that flies in the face of international standards, which has resulted in a catalogue of unfair trials that have lead to the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience.
Article 513 of the Penal Code, under which offences considered to amount to an "insult" to religion can be punished by death or imprisonment, has been used to suppress the media. In 1999, journalists connected with the newspaper Neshat (Happiness), including the publisher, Latif Safari, editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and another journalist, Emadeddin Baqi, were detained, tried, convicted and sentenced, each to prison terms in excess of two years, for the publication of two articles which discussed the place of the death penalty in society. In April 2004, Mashallah Shamsolvaezin and Emadeddin Baqi become co-founders of Society for Defence of the Rights of Prisoners, an NGO aimed at helping those imprisoned in connection with freedom of expression.(Iran: A legal system that fails to protect freedom of expression and association).
In Russia, restrictions on freedom of expression included the takeover or closure of independent news outlets such as the television network TV-6, which was closed down in January 2002. TV-6 had been a persistent critic of government policy, especially over the war in Chechnya. (Annual Report 2003: Russian Federation)
Media ownership and restrictions
Alongside such official threats to media freedom, an increased narrowing of media ownership, with fewer and fewer proprietors owning more and more media outlets, has brought its own restrictions. Media freedom depends on, according to UNESCO, "independent and pluralistic media, and a better balanced dissemination of information, without any obstacle to the freedom of expression."
To take the example of one of the world's biggest media companies, News Corporation, the Iraq war clearly illustrated a cohesive editorial line across its outlets. From The Australian newspaper to Fox NewsThe Times and The Sun in the United Kingdom, every News Corporation outlet strongly voiced support for the war. As these outlets make up an increasing percentage of the world's mainstream media, this kind of unanimity works against a pluralistic media landscape. in the US and
A survey of commercial television in the United States, in relation to the Iraq War and its aftermath, by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) showed that 80% of Fox News viewers held one of three major misconceptions* about the issues and 45% held all three. PIPA's report on the survey also found that, the more misconceptions held by the respondent, the more likely it was that they supported the war. As News Corporation continues to expand its control of the world's media, the more danger there is that "a better balanced dissemination of information" will be more of an aspiration and less of a reality.
In the UK, a recent series of articles in The Daily Express reporting that "hordes of Gypsies" are ready to "flood in" to the country on 1 May provoked a strong reaction. The Minister for Europe, Denis McShane, called it a "rancid hate campaign", with other MPs condemning it as "obscene" and "racist". What is particularly striking about this, though, is that the newspaper's own journalists reported the stories to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). They sought help from the PCC to protect them by introducing a "conscience clause" to protect those who resist pressure to produce stories they regard as racist.
Editorial pressure and interference -- such as the fact that the newspaper's editor, Peter Hill, admits that the proprietor Richard Desmond contributes to editing the front pages -- restricts the ability of journalists to write fair, balanced and truthful articles and stories. The fact that Peter Hill is a member of the very same PCC to which the journalists complained denies journalists adequate protection. The PCC ruled that it has no jurisdiction to respond to the journalists' call. The issue has now been taken up as a campaign by the NUJ and a group of Labour Party MPs.
There is nothing wrong with having an editorial position; in fact, a range of newspapers with different stances on issues adds to the pluralism of the media. But editorial pressure on journalists to distort, hype and write things they know are untrue does the opposite.
Threats and obstacles to a truly free press are widespread and take many different forms, some more stark than others. The starkest, of course, is the on-going threat to journalists' lives. This is why a number of journalist organisations came together with Amnesty International at the UN Commission on Human Rights in April 2004 to launch the Movement to Protect Media in Zones of Conflict - the Need for a Protective Press Emblem (PEMBLEM).
However, this is only the first step. Journalists have found that being clearly marked with the word Press is not a defence. Any emblem needs to be backed up by international respect for those who wear it; if not, then it could as easily become a target. Journalists deserve protection like any other civilian. It is the duty of all -- be they large armies, armed insurrectionists, governments or opposition campaigners -- to protect them. The world's press might not be ideal and the pressures outlined above may affect what they publish, but the world would be a far less free place if they were not there at all.
* The three misconceptions were that: 1. US troops found evidence of close pre-war links between Iraq and al-Qai'ida; 2. troops found weapons of mass destruction; and 3. world opinion favoured the US going to war with Iraq.