Reporters Without Borders is very concerned about press freedom worldwide after a year of violence towards the media in 2007. More and more journalists are being killed and last year’s figure was the highest since 1994. Harsh punishment was also meted out by some regimes, with several journalists sentenced to death or facing the possibility. Two journalists died in prison for lack of medical treatment and others were given heavy prison sentences without even being able to defend themselves.
But repressive governments were far from being the only enemies of press freedom. Extremist religious groups, drug traffickers, organised crime, gangs, independence movements, armed rebels, corrupt politicians and aggressive secret police all behaved brutally towards journalists who showed too much interest in their activities.
It looks like 2008 will be an even tougher year for the media and without being at all complacent, we have to say it is very unlikely the job of journalists will get any easier in the months ahead.
Our main concern is about the elections scheduled during the year. Key votes will be held in countries whose leaders distrust independent journalists. Only a few countries still dare to rig elections openly and shamelessly. Rigging is less obvious these days and prepared well in advance, often astutely combining fraudulent electoral lists, pressure on election supervisors and controlling the media. During the election campaigns, the media is the focus of attention and a scapegoat for supporters of candidates claiming they have been unfairly treated.
Journalists are likely to be physically attacked and arrested in the course of the imminent 18 February elections in Pakistan. The country’s privately-owned TV stations will have to stick together to preserve the shaky freedom to comment. President Pervez Musharraf is doing all he can to ensure he wins and has still not accepted the spring 2007 revolt of the country’s lawyers which was followed in November by major protests by journalists.
Russia will elect a new president in early March. Nominally outgoing President Vladimir Putin feels invulnerable to outside critics because of the European Union’s dependence on Russian oil and natural gas and knows he can run the country without accounting to foreigners. His critics are encouraged to be silent and if they are not, bribes and threats will see that they are. Journalists are murdered in Russia every year and physical attacks on them are frequent. All the principal media outlets have fallen under the control of Putin’s allies. Even the Echo of Moscow radio station, a beacon of independent journalism, was unable to resist the economic might of its new owners, the giant energy conglomerate Gazprom. The strong character of its managing editor ensures it is still outspoken. But for how long ?
The Russian trend has infected the region and the entire former Soviet empire, except for the Baltic states and to a much lesser extent Ukraine, treat the media with hostility as soon as it fails to bend to their will. Journalists in Azerbaijan who will cover the almost-certain re-election of President Ilham Aliev in October expect a rough time, with violence by security forces and unjustified prosecutions rubber-stamped by tame courts.
Repression continues in Iran, where President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under increasing pressure, including from fellow hardliners, and is trying to reduce the influence of the media before parliamentary elections in mid-March. Journalists not already in prison are summoned by judges who remind them they are only free conditionally. The most outspoken and critical Internet websites are closing one after another because of official censorship. The same thing is happening in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe, in power for nearly 30 years, now faces a divided ruling party. The party leadership vote at the end of March is likely to see protest marches during which demonstrators, photographers and cameramen will fall foul of the regime’s various forces of “law and order” in the streets of Harare.
Killers of journalists not punished
The failure to prosecute those who murder journalists is another big concern. Investigation of physical attacks on media workers very rarely results in prosecution and when it does, those who ordered the crime escape punishment because they are protected by their jobs or powerful friends. Two important trials will be held in 2008 however - those of the killers of editor Hrant Dink in Turkey and investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Russia. These crimes, committed at the gates of Europe, must receive exemplary punishment and both the gunmen and the masterminds must be severely sanctioned. The results of the two trials will influence the future of journalists not just in Turkey and Russia but in all dangerous countries where sensitive investigations are made.
More and more countries are becoming dangerous for media workers. Iraq continues to bury journalists five years after the US invasion began the fighting there. Almost every week Iraqi journalists are murdered or an attempt made to kill them. Foreign reporters, who are fewer these days and have better protection, are less affected. Iraqi journalists do not expect their working conditions to substantially improve over the next few years.
Civilians continue to be major victims of unrest in the Palestinian Territories and Somalia and local and foreign journalists there are seen as spies for opposing sides. Sri Lanka has just marked the 60th anniversary of its independence amid bombings and in 2008 journalists will have to dodge the violence of the Tamil Tiger rebels and the army and its allied militias. Journalists working in the chaos of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas are in constant danger.
Rebels in Chad and Niger may take reprisals against journalists covering their activities. The governments of both countries get tougher as their enemies close in on the capital cities and the tolerance of their rulers towards media outlets giving a voice to the rebels reached its limit at the end of 2007.
Promises and trickery
The evasion of the law by those supposed to uphold it is becoming routine. Governments are increasingly trying to give themselves a good name by promising to abolish prison sentences for press offences and only the most repressive ones jail journalists for “defamation” or “insults.” The authorities in countries the international community euphemistically calls “transitional democracies” have craftily altered the charges while methods are still the same. Journalists there are sent to prison for supposedly “disturbing the peace” or “subversion.” Next it will be for “complicity with terrorists.” Cuba is a leader in this kind of legal trickery and has invented a crime of “pre-criminal danger to society.” Journalists are arrested before writing a single word because of the “potential risk” they represent - a new kind of prior censorship.
And censorship is increasing everywhere, with new media and ways of conveying news under attack. Mobile phones are a growing target because they can now take photos and film events. Police seized them in Burma during the crackdown on protests in September 2007 when the regime found they were being used to send images to media around the world. The new video-sharing and social networking Internet websites are also victims of the censors, especially in Syria, Egypt and even Brazil. China is the leader in this field and has energetically passed laws to curb their influence.
All eyes will be on China when the Olympic Games open in Beijing on 8 August, while 100 or so journalists, Internet users and bloggers remain in the country’s prisons. Nobody apart from the International Olympic Committee seems to believe any longer that the government will make a significant human rights concession before the Games start. Every time a journalist or blogger is released, another goes into prison. The police have been told to crack down on anyone - such as blogger Hu Jia, arrested at the end of 2007 - who suggests that the Games should not be held in China. Other arrests are expected to follow and China’s dissidents will probably be having a hard time this summer.
But some good news may lighten the gloom of 2008. At least three journalists are expected to be released in Ethiopia after completing their sentences and negotiations are under way to free Sudanese Al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj from the US prison at Guantanamo in coming months. Veteran journalist Win Tin, imprisoned in Burma since 1989 and due to be released in July 2009, may be freed before through remission he has earned in recent years. 2008 will end with commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, whose article 19 guarantees “the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” Let’s hope the ceremonies will mark the beginning of an expansion of press freedom.
Head of Research