Freedom of the Press: The Courage to Show Up

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Russian opposition leader Vladimir Milov at Moscow police headquarters in November 2010. The poster says “Journalist Oleg Kashin has been beaten. I demand to find the persons who attacked him.” Photo: Misha Japaridze/AP
Sri Lankan demonstrators protest the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist P

Sri Lankan demonstrators protest the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Prageeth Eknaligoda in January. Journalists have suffered a series of attacks.

This is a headline-driven world. That's an old complaint of those who cover international affairs and of those who are covered. The familiar joke about the "quakes and coups" approach to news of other countries is as true now as it ever was. What impresses the members of the Overseas Press Club of America's press-freedom committee is the day-in, day-out commitment, the physical bravery of reporters and editors in countries where earthquakes seldom happen and governments are at least technically legitimate. By showing the courage to turn up each morning they exhibit a professional dedication which reminds us that a journalist's work is as much calling as career.

In January 2009, Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor-in-chief of the Sunday Leader and a persistent critic of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was assassinated. The Leader was ready with the obituary Wickrematunge had written for himself, which said in part, "When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me. Murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today, it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges."

A year later, Rajapaksa was re-elected. Within a month of his new term, Swiss radio journalist Karin Wenger was deported for reporting "false information." The offices of the weekly Colombo Sinhalese Lanka were shuttered. Ravi Abewikrama, a reporter for state radio SLBC, was assaulted by an official of the re-elected government aggrieved by Abewikram's coverage of the election. All that in less than a month. Since then the list of threats and physical intimidation has only grown.

In most of the world, abuse of Sri Lankan journalists is not a headline. It is far from undocumented by international press freedom organizations, including the OPC, which has several times directly expressed its dismay to President Rajapaksa. Notwithstanding that attention, on New Year's Day this year the offices of Llanka-e-News were set afire by intruders who burst into the newsroom. The attack came exactly a year after the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a cartoonist and columnist with Llanka-e-News. The mystery of his disappearance remains unsolved. Meanwhile the site's editor-in-chief lives in exile because of threats made on his life.

In October, 2009, the worst massacre of journalists in history took place in the southern province of Maguindanao. Thirty two reporters were among the 57 people slaughtered on their way to deliver official candidacy papers for a politician who planned to run against the Ampatuan clan, the long-time power in the province. Still, reporters in the Philippines, radio journalists especially, continue to be aggressive — and to pay the price for it.

This past January in the far-western island of Palawan, Gerardo Ortega, a broadcaster with Radio Mindanao Network and a former gubernatorial candidate, was shot in the head in Puerto Princesa shortly after airing his daily program, Ramatak. Until his murder, Ortega was a staunch critic of illegal mining activities in Palawan, unafraid of reporting on corruption in the provincial government. Only a month later Armand Reyes of Skyradio in Ligao City, Oas, was physically threatened by the husband of a local council member implicated in illegal fishing in a report filed by Reyes.

What is most discouraging is the absence or the virtual absence of justice in such cases. Reporters and their supporters appeal to the mechanics of the justice systems, the proper noises are made, and little happens.

In the case of the Maguindanao massacre, to almost nobody's surprise the official investigation drags on. Several members of the Ampatuan family have been arrested, none tried. One hundred thirty suspects are still at large. There are reports of witnesses bribed, others intimidated, and evidence compromised by sloppy handling.

Russia under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev are the most accomplished at the judicial feint. The roll call of reporters — or anyway their survivors — appealing in vain to Russian courts for justice is depressingly long and well documented. What strikes one on reading the stories behind the names is how often the provocation for the murders, beatings and dark threats would be the most routine sort of stuff in most Western media.

Last autumn, for instance, the OPC made an appeal to Putin and Medvedev on behalf of three journalists all involved in the same story: the building of a highway through a forest in the Moscow suburb of Khimki. The story began in 2008 when Mikhail Beketov, editor of the local Khimkinskaya Pravda, criticized the highway plan for the environmental damage it would cause. First, his car was blown up. Then he was beaten in front of his home so viciously that a leg and three fingers had to be amputated. Another journalist, Oleg Kashin of Kommersant, came home to his apartment to find two men waiting for him with a bunch of flowers. The flowers concealed a length of reinforcing bar which they used to give Kashin a concussion, a fractured jaw, two broken legs and several mashed fingers; he spent several days in an induced coma. (Kashin's reporting had aroused the ire of a youth group connected with Putin's United Russia Party by criticizing the Khimki project.) Soon after, Anatoly Adamchuk, a reporter for a suburban weekly, suffered a concussion and head injuries when he was attacked from behind. Adamchuk had reported on the arrests of children protesting the cutting down of the Khimki forest.

Putin and President Medvedev deplored the attacks in grave terms, and ordered an investigation. The first fruit of their concern was Beketov's conviction for slander after alleging the involvement of Khimki's mayor in the bombing of his car.

And then there is Wikileaks. For many people Julian Assange, who is what we talk about when we talk about Wikileaks, was hailed as a champion of free expression. Following his flight from sex-assault charges in Sweden, his supporters portrayed him as a victim of those bent on silencing his "reporting," even as the news he made was picked up and amplified by media platforms around the world.

For the members of the freedom of the press committee, the portrayal of Assange as a victim was hard to picture. To see what silenced expression really looks like we had the example of countless unknown reporters in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Russia, and on and on, out of the headlines, going to work each day and inspiring us with the highest standards of professionalism.

Kevin McDermott is the founder of Collective Intelligence in New York and co-chair of OPC's Freedom of the Press Committee. Other co-chairs are Larry Martz and Jeremy Main.

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