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Falluja Latest Place Press Freedom Attacked
Published on Tuesday, November 16, 2004 by the Toronto Star
Falluja Latest Place Press Freedom Attacked
Journalists Peril in Many Countries
by Antonia Zerbisias
 

There is some good news coming out of the hunt for WMD's, as coalition forces in Iraq have, in fact, uncovered and disarmed one of the most dangerous and destructive weapons known to man: the free press.
— The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, April 5, 2004.

It is all but impossible to know what is happening on the ground in and around Falluja.

It's a humanitarian disaster for sure.

But who knows how many civilians have been affected by the bombardment, not to mention the lack of food, water and medical care? Even many who escaped the fighting are short of the necessities of life.

The Americans are not counting the civilian dead. So there's no way to know their number.

That's because, as Jon Stewart noted last spring — when all hell first broke out in the city — the U.S.-run administration has been preventing many media from operating freely in Iraq.

There's nothing new in the notion of controlling a situation — to the extent Iraq is under control — by controlling the free flow of information about that situation. Other jurisdictions have been doing it for years, with much worse consequences for journalists.

This isn't a case of publish or perish — but one of publish and perish.

Last month, Reporters Without Borders published its third annual World Wide Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries according to how easily and safely journalists are allowed to do their jobs.

East Asian countries — with North Korea at the bottom of the list at 167th place — are the worst, while Middle Eastern Arab states (Saudi Arabia 159th, Iran 158th, Syria 155th, Iraq 148th) are not that far behind. In between is Cuba (in 166th place), second only to China as the biggest prison for journalists, with 26 in jail. China has 27.

We Canadians should not be too smug. We only placed only 18th. Give credit for that to last summer's regulatory decision to muzzle the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera and to the RCMP raid on Ottawa Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill's home, in connection with the case of Maher Ahar, the Syrian-born Canadian deported by the U.S. to a Syrian prison.

As for the U.S., it tied for 22nd place because, as New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote last week, "three different U.S. federal judges, each appointed by President Ronald Reagan, have found a total of eight journalists in contempt of court for refusing to reveal confidential sources, and the first of them may go to prison before the year is out."

At least they get a trial.

And a chance to get out.

Not so in Iran where the government continues to arrest journalists, while blocking hundreds of political Internet sites. There, more than 100 pro-democracy newspapers and magazines have been shut down in recent years.

As Canadians well know, Iran is where Canadian photojournalist Zara Kazemi, died in July 2003 from head injuries she suffered while under arrest. On her behalf last November, at the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression annual dinner, her son Stephan Hachemi accepted the Tara Singh Hayer Memorial Award, named for the late British Columbian journalist who was confined to a wheelchair after being attacked in 1988.

Ironically, and tragically, tomorrow night at a downtown Toronto hotel, another Canadian son will accept another posthumous Tara Singh Hayer Award from the CJFE.

This time its for Guy-André Kieffer, 54, a Franco-Canadian journalist who disappeared last spring in Ivory Coast, after getting death threats for his investigative work into corruption in the lucrative cocoa and coffee industries.

Reports of the tortured corpse of a white man turning up near where he disappeared remain unconfirmed. And they probably never will be, given how Kieffer was looking into the activities of associates of President Laurent Gbagbo, whose country is now in chaos.

"My father had a passion for his work and for Africa," Kieffer's son Sébastien explained in a telephone interview from Montreal. "He believed in humanity, he believed in fairness and he didn't like it when people took advantage of a situation."

Sébastien, who talked about Guy-André getting beaten after looking into problems at a Del Monte operation in Africa, said he holds no hope of getting more information about his father's fate.

"Everybody there is afraid of talking," he said.

Also receiving CJFE International Press Freedom Awards tomorrow night are Tunisia's Sihem Bensedrine, honoured for her tireless campaign to expose human rights abuses in her country, and the staff and founders of the Daily News in Zimbabwe, the biggest independent newspaper in that conflict-charged country.

Picking up the award on their behalf is former deputy news editor, Pedzisai Ruhanya, who was repeatedly arrested for doing his job. His fellow journalists there have been firebombed, brutalized by police and eventually forced to quit publishing. Now they struggle to keep their fellow citizens informed, "telling it like it is" online at http://www.daily-news.co.za.

Until, of course, the government pulls the plug on that.

Which brings us back to another American wag, who predates Jon Stewart by some 250 years.

"Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech," said Benjamin Franklin.

He knew a weapon of mass destruction when he saw one.

© 2004 Toronto Star Newspapers, Ltd.

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