There has been a disturbing upswing in the number of journalists being imprisoned or killed, and more online journalists are being jailed by autocratic governments, say experts who spoke at a conference marking World Press Freedom Day.
The fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s brought an era of journalistic freedom, according to Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). But in recent years, there has been a reversal, with more journalists being imprisoned or killed, he said.
CPJ is an independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1981 to promote press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal. According to CPJ's research, 11 journalists worldwide have been killed for their work in the first four months of 2009; since January 1992, some 734 journalists have been killed. Iraq is the deadliest country in which journalists work; at least 88 journalists have been killed there, mainly by insurgents and militias, since the war began in 2003.
Many more journalists, CPJ found, have been imprisoned -- 125 in 2008 alone. Among the 29 nations CPJ identified as jailing journalists, China jails the most, followed by Cuba, Burma, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.
According to Rodney Pinder, since the September 11 attacks on the United States, parts of the world have been more dangerous for journalists. The war on terrorism "gives autocratic governments an excuse to crack down on the flow of information," he said. Pinder is the director of the International News Safety Institute, a Brussels-based organization dedicated to the safety of news media personnel.
Pinder said only one in four journalists killed was covering combat, and in two-thirds of the cases the killers have not been identified. "Murder is cheap censorship," he observed. "Terror increases self censorship." Both close the window on information flow, he said.
Simon and Pinder were among the panelists April 29 at an annual Press Freedom Day meeting co-hosted by the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA).
The Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press was launched in 2006 as a bipartisan caucus aimed at advancing press freedom around the world. It is co-chaired by Senator Richard Lugar (Republican of Indiana), Senator Chris Dodd (Democrat of Connecticut), Representative Adam Schiff (Democrat of California) and Representative Mike Pence (Republican of Indiana).
CIMA supports media worldwide via research and assistance programs. It is part of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, congressionally supported organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts.
PUBLISHING ONLINE BECOMES DANGEROUS
Despotic governments, Simon said, have launched a "counteroffensive on Internet journalists." In a prison census released in 2008, CPJ found that more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide than journalists working in any other medium. In China, for example, 24 of the 28 reporters known to be imprisoned are online journalists.
Militant extremists are increasingly using the Internet to speak directly to their followers. And killing journalists who disagree with them, Simon said, "is cheap and an excellent way to spread fear."
CPJ, Simon said, is working with a coalition of human rights groups, academics and Internet companies on the Global Network Initiative, an effort to establish guidelines for information industries to protect freedom of expression and privacy. CPJ is looking at legislation, he said, that would compel Internet service providers to follow a "road map" when governments seek to enlist them in acts of censorship or surveillance that violate international standards of human rights.
As declared by the United Nations General Assembly, May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right of freedom of expression. Each year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization marks World Press Freedom Day by conferring its World Press Freedom Prize on an individual or organization that has made an outstanding contribution to the defense of press freedom.
The 2009 prize will be awarded posthumously to Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga, who was murdered in January. A lawyer as well as an investigative reporter, Wickrematunga campaigned against the conflict between Sri Lanka's army and the Tamil Tigers insurgent group, as well as against government efforts to curb the media.