29 April 2002
Annual report 2002
Hard times for press freedom
Press freedom had a rough time in 2001, the first year of the third millennium. On every continent, this basic right (a key to democracy in any society) was harshly attacked, along with those who exercised it. The attacks were either physical (threats, blows, injuries and murders), done through repressive laws (censorship, bannings, arrests and prison sentences) or else targeted media equipment itself (broadcasting aerials, printing works and offices). The picture was a sad one. Press freedom in the world sharply declined during the year.
A few victories were notched up however. Some of those persecuted - symbols of repression by regimes that tolerate only the information they decree shall be known - were released. One was journalist Nizar Nayyouf, who emerged from a Syrian prison in May after nine years. Another was Burmese woman journalist and writer San San Nwe, released in July after seven years in Rangoon’s Insein prison. They are now free but the physical effects of imprisonment during which everything was done to break their bodies and minds - through total isolation, humiliation, refusal of medical attention, ill-treatment and torture - will stay with them for the rest of their lives. They are free, yet at the end of 2001, the Burmese rulers still held the dubious honour of being, along with Iran, the country in the world with the most journalists in prison (18 each). There are no longer any journalists in Syria’s jails, but the authorities there have not relaxed their tight control over information. A particularly harsh measure against the media came into force in September and the family of the released Nizar Nayyouf was subjected to constant pressure in a bid to make the journalist, from his European exile, stop criticising the regime.
The situation for journalists improved in several countries, though in too few of them. In Chile, the notorious Article 6b of the 1958 internal state security law, which called for up to five years in jail for "insulting" or "defaming" top state officials, was finally repealed. In Peru, the page seemed to have finally turned on the "Fujimori era" and, free of pressure from secret police and obedient judges, the media could resume its role of criticising the authorities without fear of reprisals. In Serbia, freedom of information naturally accompanied the arrival of democracy after the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000. But hopes for speedy reform of the media and press laws were disappointed. Will the same thing happen in Afghanistan now the Taliban are gone? The first statements of the new rulers there were promising, but will these good intentions last? In Africa, quite a few journalists were released from jail. In Ethiopia, four held since 1997 were freed for "lack of evidence" and in Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, journalists in prison for several months were pardoned by the president and released. Pressure on the media by the authorities in these countries is still very strong however and includes frequent arrests and indictments that can be taken further at any time.
The fact that the number of journalists killed did not rise (31 against 32 in 2000) and was far lower than the record reached in the 1990s could, at a pinch, be counted as positive. We must also distinguish between those killed in war zones who were not singled out for being journalists and those who were deliberately murdered because of their investigations and articles about sensitive matters and for having denounced arbitrary behaviour, embezzlement, injustice, crime and racketeering.
New kinds of wars, not between the regular armies of old but between ethnic, ideological, religious or plain criminal interests, have made reporting increasingly dangerous. But death or injury of journalists in these conflicts is not always purely accidental. Sometimes the combatants, even from regular armies, deliberately target inconvenient witnesses to their deeds. In the Palestinian Occupied Territories, where several dozen journalists have been wounded by gunfire since the start of the Intifada, some have been deliberately shot at by Israeli soldiers. Reporters Without Borders had well-documented cases that leave no doubt about who was responsible, but the organisation’s demand for their punishment went unanswered. This is the eternal and harrowing problem of the impunity enjoyed nearly all over the world by those who kill or attack journalists.
That is the extent of the meagre "good" news, that we are well aware is very relative. We have dealt with it first so as not to discourage readers of the report right away. Also to show that even in the darkest times in a world scarred at all levels by fierce fighting, bloody struggles for power and for control of people’s activities, minds and land, defenders of human rights, especially the right to free information, can still make headway.
There was plenty of cause for concern and alarm. Except for the number of journalists killed during the year, all the figures were sharply up on 2000. They included arrests of journalists (489, up 50 per cent), threats and attacks (716, up 40 per cent) and incidents of censorship (378, up 28 per cent). More and more journalists went to jail for denouncing embezzlement, criticising officials or simply expressing concern of any kind - in other words, for doing their job, which was enough for even the most cautious journalist to be sued for harming the reputation of a leader or even national morale. The number of journalists in prison at the end of 2001 was 110, compared with 74 a year earlier, an increase of almost 50 per cent.
Nearly a third of the world’s people still live in countries where press freedom is simply not allowed, notably the last-remaining communist countries where the only permitted political party, that supposedly incarnates the aspirations of the entire population, dictates by itself what is to be written, said and shown. China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, is far and away top of the list here. Economic liberalisation has led to media proliferation and growth, but while the press has gained some freedom, especially economically, it remains strictly under the ferrule of the party leaders where political and social matters are concerned.
Buoyed by its new membership of the World Trade Organisation, by winning its bid to hold the 2008 Olympic Games and by its support for US President George W. Bush’s crusade against terrorism in the wake of the 11 September attacks in New York, the government in Beijing has a freer hand than ever to continue its occupation of Tibet and clamp down on religious groups, opposition movements and protesting ethnic minorities. It has tightened its control of the media, especially in the provinces, and closely monitors the Internet to try to ensure that web-surfers in China only read "correct line" information. Sixteen "cyber-dissidents" were jailed in 2001, joining 12 journalists in prison.
Other governments, like the communist regimes, also keep absolute control of the flow of information. They include one-party regimes (Syria and Iraq), military dictatorships (Burma) and monarchies such as Saudi Arabia.
Cardboard imitations and repressive laws
All other governments in the world solemnly proclaim their belief in freedom of expression, especially freedom of the press. But very few are as good as their word. Many countries in every continent have all the appearances of democracy, but often that is just a cardboard imitation to fool genuinely democratic countries and major international institutions that politely take the pretence at face value. This is the case in Tunisia, where President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s police state keeps an iron grip on private and state-owned media, imposes wholesale repression and poses as a victim whenever it is accused.
To save face, political leaders "legalise" their repression by getting tough laws passed that are implemented by obedient police and judges. In Panama, the law allows imprisonment for defamation or harming someone’s reputation and state officials filed more than 70 complaints in 2001. In Guatemala, a law to force journalists to be members of an official institute came into effect in December, decreeing that those who were "morally lacking" as journalists be dismissed from the institute and thus banned from working. In Africa, many governments armed themselves with press laws to punish with stiff prison terms offences such as "putting out false news ... harming the morale of the army" or "insulting the head of State." When criticised for this, such leaders say they have merely copied the French press law of 1881, which is true, except that the prison terms provided under this law have not been handed down by French courts for many years. In 2001, Reporters Without Borders got the 1881 law amended to remove the imprisonment clauses, thus destroying the excuse of the African dictators, who did not follow suit.
Recourse to "legal" repression does not stop recourse to violence. In Colombia, where three more journalists were murdered, the guerrillas on one side and the paramilitary forces on the other want to silence inconvenient voices. Many journalists, threatened with death, chose exile. In Colombia too, the killers enjoy impunity.
Degrees of censorship, violence and media control vary greatly from country to country and situations change. After several years of real progress, repression has returned with a vengeance in many countries such as Bangladesh, Eritrea, Haiti, Nepal and Zimbabwe. Very few countries have moved in the opposite direction.
In the major democracies too...
Things are getting rocky also in major democratic countries in North America, Asia and Europe. Even within the European Union, with its good record on human rights and freedom of expression, threats to pluralism and freedom of information arose or worsened in several large countries. Among them was Italy, where prime minister Silvio Berlusconi controls most of the country’s private and public TV and radio stations and where repression of anti-globalisation
demonstrations during the G8 summit in Genoa killed one person and injured many others, including 19 journalists. Murders by armed groups in Spain (the Basque conflict) and the United Kingdom (in Northern Ireland), indictments and convictions in France and Germany, narrowing of media ownership and political interference in Austrian TV and radio all showed that the "Old Continent" too was getting dragged down in a disquieting way.
Things are likely to get worse. The fallout from the 11 September attacks in New York is not over. Several of the laws passed to fight terrorism have raised concern and undermine the basic principal of a free flow of information. In Canada and the United States, steps have been taken to strengthen monitoring of the Internet and weaken a journalist’s right not to reveal sources. In its war against what it calls "the evil-doers," the Bush Administration is little bothered by the means that are used. The news media are pressed to take sides and propaganda takes precedence over the truth. The enemy must be defeated and media that disagree must be crushed. Such black-and-white attitudes are worrying.