The Worst Year

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CPJ survey finds at least 68 journalists killed in 2009.

CPJ survey finds at least 68 journalists killed in 2009.

Even without the massacre of 30 Philippine journalists and 27 others in Maguindanao in November, 2009 would have been a dreadful year for journalists around the world. By the count of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 70 news people were killed because of their work, a record. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) put the number at 76. The number of journalists held in jail jumped to 136, according to CPJ (to 169 according to RSF’s count). Far greater numbers of journalists were threatened, beaten or forced into exile.

The crackdown on reporters after Iran’s fraudulent elections put Iran at the head of the list of the worst offenders against freedom of the press. The case of Iran is unique. Not only did the government target the domestic press, it also virtually shut down the foreign press by arrest or expulsion. The Iranian journalist who continues to report honestly well knows that he or she will likely join the 30-plus journalists in jail and face at least beatings and harassment, if not a long prison sentence and a whipping.

On every continent, reporters faced appalling dangers and took extraordinary risks. The Mexican journalist who continues to report on crime and government corruption knows he has a good chance of joining the 57 journalists murdered for their work there since 2000, 12 in 2009 alone. The Russian journalist who takes on the powers that be, whether political, criminal or commercial, may well face the fate of Olga Kotovskaya, who was tossed out of a 14-story window last year. The Chinese blogger who questions the government’s actions is likely to face a long jail term; half of the 24 jailed Chinese journalists are “cyberdissidents.”

The almost complete impunity enjoyed by criminals, terrorists and police who attack journalists adds to the feeling of hopelessness about the freedom of the press. Even the Philippine massacre may not result in any convictions as prosecutions in the Philippines have a way of petering out; witnesses are silenced. Even those in witness-protection programs don't feel safe. More than two dozen murders in the Philippines remain unsolved. Of 16 killings of journalists in Russia in the last decade, only one has led to a conviction. Anna Politkovskaya was shot in the head in her building elevator in 2006 and her murder is still unsolved. In Mexico, the most dangerous place in this hemisphere for journalists, the drug lords – and the military and police – kill with impunity.

High rates of murder and impunity can be found in many other countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Nepal, Pakistan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, to name the worst offenders listed by CPJ. In Iraq, where you would expect war casualties in the press, murder is by far the greater danger. Not one of the 88 murders of journalists in Iraq since the war began has been solved. Not one.

In Iraq, journalists may be safer than they were as the war winds down, but there’s little reason to believe 2010 will be any better than 2009 in the rest of the world. The replacement of Fidel Castro with his brother Raúl hasn't helped hasn’t helped the plight of the press in Cuba at all. A total of 24 journalists are in jail in Cuba, 19 of them have been there since a crackdown on the media and activists in 2003. They exist in declining health in disgusting, dangerous prisons.

Outside the Western democracies and a few other countries where the press remains essentially free, journalists have to battle their governments if they want to print the truth. The fact that these governments have signed various international freedom of information pacts seems irrelevant. A U.N. resolution four years ago telling governments to provide protection for journalists in combat zones has been ignored. Governments’ own laws don’t matter either. They just throw all manner of ludicrous charges at journalists they don’t like: sedition, defamation, “religious insult,” spreading propaganda, causing social unrest, “disrespect for authority” and even possession of drugs in their cells. Perhaps the most imaginative, Cuba created the charge of “pre-criminal danger to society.”

Elsewhere in Latin America Hugo Chávez continues his campaign which, according to the Inter-American Press Association, is aimed at shutting down all independent media. Last year he silenced 34 radio stations, two TV stations, and he threatened to shut down Globovisión, which is already menaced by six administrative procedures. Globovisión is the only remaining independent TV broadcaster. The minister who supervises communications said he would close 240 radio stations for failing to keep their registrations up to date.

Other new left-wing governments in South America are following the Chávez lead. President Rafael Correa Delgado of Ecuador has replaced the management of two TV stations with his own loyalists and the Teleamazonas network faces the possibility of being shut down for 90 days as a result of two current investigations. Correa refers to the press as his greatest enemy and says it is “corrupt” and “destabilizing.” While there has been a healthy trend in much of Latin America to move slander and libel cases from criminal to civil courts, Ecuador continues to send journalists to jail for “insult.”

Another new left-wing president, Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia, has also declared the press to be his enemy. According to the Bolivian Asociación Nacional de Prensa, in the 14 months ending last October there were 123 physical attacks on journalists and 164 verbal attacks. The Inter-American Press Association identified the attackers in many cases as police officers. Journalists performing their proper duties have been kidnapped, beaten, and dragged to police stations. One was murdered.

Being a foreign correspondent is not the glamour job it once was, or at least was assumed to be. Foreign correspondents from Western countries can no longer look forward to safe careers in places like Paris, London and Madrid. David Rohde of The New York Times spent more than seven months in captivity in Afghanistan before escaping last June. In the last days of 2009 Michelle Lang of The Calgary Herald and Canwest News Service was killed and two French TV newsmen were kidnapped along with their three Afghan assistants. However, the overwhelming majority of journalists murdered, attacked, jailed, suppressed, and exiled were citizens of the countries where they were victims.

The wonder is that in the face of such appalling dangers, they keep trying to get the news out.

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