Journalists have a tough time earning a living. Their defenders seem less effective than ever. It may seem odd for Reporters Without Borders to say that, but without wringing our hands (we’ve long known our strengths and weaknesses) we have to recognise that journalists are not adequately and sufficiently defended around the world.
The most repressive regimes can easily dispose of freedom of expression and its supporters. NGOs are banned from or else thrown out of the very countries where they can be most useful. Major international institutions can protest, threaten sanctions, denounce the situation at the highest level, all to no avail. The predators of press freedom are not listening. Our impotence is their strength.
The European Union (EU) often echoes human rights activists and yet... In October 2007 the European Parliament firmly condemned basic rights violations in Iran, including the death sentence passed on journalist Adnan Hassanpour. But a few days later, Hassanpour’s lawyer learned that the supreme court had confirmed the death sentence, making the journalist liable to be executed at any moment. It was clear defiance of the international community. And then the sentence was cancelled in late January 2008. Was it because of international pressure? We would like to think so. But let’s say his lawyer’s energy was a major factor in getting the case turned around.
How many resolutions, statements and protest letters have no effect? Does that mean we should stop voting them or writing them? Of course not. But new means of pressure and forms of action can be devised to destabilise the enemies of press freedom, expose their weaknesses and defeat them.
Whenever it feels powerless, the EU threatens to crack down. But dictators aren’t naughty schoolchildren who can be brought back into line with a few sharp words. Uzbekistan’s all-powerful president, Islam Karimov, hardly flinches in the face of European sanctions. Any more than Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe fears the action taken against him. Freezing assets abroad, refusing visas and banning travel in Europe, inspection of exports and downgrading diplomatic ties have not budged either of these two rulers. Freedom of expression is in very bad shape in both countries. The few independent journalists there know they are alone and have long stopped counting on outside help. An international arms sales embargo on China has been in force since 1989 but this has not reduced the number of rights violations.
The spinelessness of some Western countries and big international institutions is damaging freedom of expression. They are all quick to condemn developing countries that have little strategic value, but things are different when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Hu Jintao. Western heads of state put away their lawyer’s robes and become salesmen. Trade with China and Russia is so important that human rights are rarely on the agenda. Or else they are talked about informally in very general terms. The real or false indignation of the Chinese and Russian leaders has been enough to scare even those who make the strongest protests. Who still dares to talk about the Dalai Lama or praise Taiwanese democracy to President Hu’s face? German chancellor Angela Merkel. Just her. Who can withstand the icy look of President Putin in a discussion of rights in Chechnya or about the score of journalists murdered since he came to power?
The leaders of democratic countries also don’t want to clash with big companies for whom time spent on talking about human rights only delays the signing of new contracts. Merkel was strongly criticised by German business for receiving the Dalai Lama in Berlin in September but she had the courage to defend her beliefs and end what she called “business diplomacy.”
Realpolitik plays into the hands of dictators. French President Nicolas Sarkozy laudably acted directly to get journalists and cyber-dissidents out of prison in Tunisia, Chad and Vietnam. But their colleagues in Russia and China - who really need help just a few months away from the Beijing Olympics - have not had such support. If the French NGO Arche de Zoé had made their humanitarian bungle in Chechnya rather than Chad, what would Sarkozy have done to win the release of the three journalists mixed up in it?"
The duplicity of some “official defenders” of human rights has also greatly harmed the victims of violations. The United Nations is easily best at doing this. While the UN Security Council passed a strong resolution in New York calling for the grim violence against journalists to stop, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was equally energetic in letting off those responsible for such violence. The council yielded in 2007 to pressure from Iran and Uzbekistan, major rights offenders whose actions were not even discussed by the Council. A few months later, the Council did not renew the mandates of the special rapporteurs for Belarus and Cuba - independent experts examining rights violations there. In 2008, it will be the turn of Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Congo to dismiss these embarrassing inspectors with a wave of the hand.
The lack of determination by democratic countries in defending the values they supposedly stand for is alarming. The abandonment or dishonesty of those who claim to protect our freedom is even more worrying. In 2007, journalists were more than ever targets of violence (86 killed) and repression (at least two arrested each day).
NGOs must persuade all countries to change their attitude. Pressure must be maintained on dictatorships to stop freely abusing the rights of their citizens. But we also increasingly need to get democratic countries and major international institutions to defend these rights around the world. Our new goal is to find defenders of free expression who are more aware of their responsibilities and thus more effective.
Head of Research