2003 Bad Year for Press Freedom
Published on Tuesday, January 6, 2004 by OneWorld.net
2003 Bad Year for Press Freedom
by Jim Lobe
 

WASHINGTON - More journalists were killed in the line of duty in 2003 than in any other year in almost a decade, according to two major international press watchdogs, Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in New York.

RSF counted 42 journalists slain in 2003, while CPJ concluded in a separate report that the total death toll was 36. Both groups said the toll was about twice as high as in 2002 and that the war in Iraq was the primary reason for the increase.

But arrests of journalists and media censorship also soared during the year, according to RSF, which attributed the trend to new laws and tactics adopted by a number of governments around the world as their contribution to the post-September 11, 2001, U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign.

A total of 19 journalists were killed in Iraq, 13 of them in hostile actions, according to CPJ, which stressed that the country remains dangerous not only for foreign journalists, but for residents as well.

"The war that began in March posed many hazards for journalists, but seasoned war correspondents tell us that even in the post-war period Iraq remains the most dangerous assignment they have ever had," said CPJ's director, Ann Cooper.

"It has been particularly troubling to see at least four journalists killed as a result of U.S. military actions in Iraq," she added, noting that her group continues to demand a full public accounting by the Pentagon for all these incidents.

RSF, which blamed the deaths of five journalists on U.S. fire in Iraq, charged that in none of the cases "did (the U.S. military) hold any investigation worthy of the name."

"Added to the traditional dangers of war are the unpredictable hazards of bomb attacks, the use of more sophisticated weapons--against which even the training and protection of journalists is ineffective--and belligerents who care more about winning the war of images than respecting the safety of media staff," according to RSF.

Both groups agreed that death in Iraq was the highest in any one country since 24 journalists were killed in Algeria in 1995 at the height of a brutal war between the government and Islamists. In that year, a total of 49 journalists were killed worldwide, according to RSF.

In addition to the 13 journalists killed by hostile acts in Iraq last year, another six died from illness or traffic accidents while covering the war. A French journalist and his Lebanese interpreter working for British ITN television also mysteriously disappeared in southern Iraq on the third day of the conflict.

In the Middle East's other major conflict, two journalists were killed by Israeli army gunfire in the Occupied Territories, bringing to six the total number of journalists killed since the Palestinian Intifada began three and a half years ago.

To date, no action has been taken against those who did the shooting, although the Israeli army has said it is conducting an investigation into the death of the British documentary film-maker, James Miller.

Nearly all of the journalists killed outside the Middle East were deliberately targeted, often in direct reprisal for their reporting, according to CPJ.

In the Philippines, CPJ reported five journalists killed for covering local corruption or criticizing public officials, while RSF said seven had been killed. In either case, it was the highest death toll for journalists since the 1980s when the country was wracked by turmoil and at least two insurgencies.

In Colombia, traditionally the most-dangerous country in the world for journalists, three reporters were murdered as a direct result of their work, while a fourth was killed in a cross-fire.

In Russia, Aleksei Sidorov, the editor-in-chief of an independent publication known for its reporting on organized crime and government corruption, was stabbed to death outside his home. His predecessor was also murdered in a case that has never been resolved.

Two journalists were killed in Nepal and Indonesia while the death toll in India included three professionals, including the head of a local press agency who was killed in his Kashmir office, RSF said.

In Iran, the Iranian-Canadian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, was murdered after her arrest in Tehran where she was covering the opposition student movement. After initially denying responsibility, the government has begun a prosecution.

Other killings of journalists took place in Burma, Cambodia, Cote d'Ivoire, and Guatemala, according to the two groups.

RSF reported that 124 journalists were in prison worldwide due to their work as of January 1, 2004, out of the 766 who were arrested over the course of 2003. Countries with the largest number of journalists behind bars included Cuba with 30; Burma, with 17; Eritrea, with 14; and Iran, with 11.

Of the 30 Cuban journalists, 27 were arrested in a roundup of dissidents that took place last March. All received sentences of between 14 and 27 years in what RSF called "Stalinist-type trials."

The Eritrean prisoners were arrested by the government shortly after Sep 11, 2001, and their detention essentially ended the independent press in that East African country.

Assaults and threats against journalists remained stable during 2003 compared to the previous year, RSF said in its report, which noted that more than 200 journalists were physically attacked or received death threats from politicians, religious extremists or local criminal gangs in Bangladesh.

Assaults and attacks were also common in the Americas, particularly in Haiti, Venezuela, and Guatemala, according to RSF.

Censorship also rose sharply during 2003, it said. In Zimbabwe, the country's sole independent daily, the Daily News, was closed in mid-September by the government which also expelled the last foreign correspondent based there. In Africa, RSF also cited Gabon, Rwanda, Swaziland, as well as Eritrea for censorship.

The group called censorship in Iran "severe" and noted that the authorities in Algeria had harassed independent newspapers, while self-censorship dominated media coverage of the Iraq war, in particular, throughout the Middle East.

As for constraints on the Internet, RSF noted that China "remains by far the world's largest prison for Internet-users," with six cyber-dissidents jailed this year, bringing to 48 the number who were in prison in connection with their use of the medium by January 1, 2004. It noted that Vietnam, which just issued a lengthy sentence to another internet journalist, is following China's example. A total of nine cyber-dissidents are now behind bars there.

Copyright 2004 OneWorld.net

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