That travesty of justice in Havana. If God and Stalin are together somewhere, what would they say? No one, perhaps not even they expected to witness such a grotesque and sinister farce again, one not seen since those cold war films, which back then, of course, were said to reflect "crude anti-communism."
Even if it means being accused of crude anti-Castroism, you have to recognise that the old methods have been recycled in the tropics in 2003: sentences ranging from six to 28 years in prison! Not for exercising the universal right to free speech, since that scarcely exists in Cuba anyway, but just for being suspected of wanting to exercise it one day.
Unfortunately, 2003 has engraved other images on our memory. As all the TV stations in the world showed it over and again, you will remember the US tanks stopping on a bridge in Baghdad and suddenly opening fire on the Palestine Hotel which, as the same TV stations had already told us at great length, was housing a large number of reporters. Apparently the gunner and the officer who authorised the shelling were one of the few not to know. What level of ignorance can you have in a general staff? A painstaking investigation carried out by Jean-Paul Mari at the request of Reporters Without Borders picked the case apart and did it objectively.
In addition to the report, there is the complaint filed in Spain by cameraman José Couso’s widow and Reporters Without Borders. Our organisation now has a team of jurists, and this unprecedented legal appeal against a "military error" - to use the evasive euphemism provided for public opinion - shows how determined we are that our role should not longer be limited to sounding the alarm and issuing condemnations. We also want to demand reparations whenever it can be proved that a crime has been committed. Because if the murderers feel protected, their impunity will bring out this vocation in others and our work would be incomplete if we did not attend to the needs of the victims’ families.
The litany of death continues
There was Jean Hélène, shot like a dog in an Abidjan parking lot. There was... one could go listing ad nauseam last year’s drama in which journalists of every nationality lost their freedoms, or their lives, because they were journalists.
Every year, we would like to be able to announce to you that the sad litany is finally beginning to decrease. But this will not be the case for 2003, a black year if ever there was one. More than 120 journalists are still imprisoned and 42 were killed, mainly in Asia and the Middle East (in the Iraq war), compared with 25 in 2002. Moreover, all of the other so-called "indicators" have increased notably: 766 journalists detained, at least 1,460 physically attacked or threatened, and 501 news media censored. To this we should add the many other signs that are harder to quantify. We will return to them because they point to a worrying evolution in retaliatory methods.
Africa? The death of Jean Hélène was unfortunately not isolated. Covering a war is proving to be more and more dangerous, and armed conflicts persist in many countries. Moreover, in Paul Biya’s Cameroon, Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Lansana Conté’s Guinea, Obiang Nguema’s Equatorial Guinea, Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, Gnassingbé Eyadéma’s Togo and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, journalists must face the wrath of aging regimes clinging to power and protective of their authority. They all balk at liberalisation, especially when broadcasting is involved. Indeed, independent news media are becoming scarce throughout Africa and journalists continue to flee with a heavy heart.
In Asia, the dictatorships have the biggest prisons in the world for journalists who refuse to give up. At least 200 journalists were jailed - and in many cases tortured - in Asia last year. In Nepal for example and in Burma, where one of the few outsiders to enter the prison world described it as a "real hell." No one needs reminding that North Korea has no idea what press diversity is and China discourages anything that is not propaganda. What could be called "judicial harassment" prevails almost everywhere. Tried and tested forms of this can be found in Turkey, despite a slight relaxation aimed at improving the country’s image for the European Union, and in former Soviet bloc republics such as the relentless Azerbaijan (with more than 100 physical attacks on journalists), Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - countries with absolute censorship.
The war in Iraq has not improved press freedom or the safety of journalists in the Middle East, where it is now well established that Iran stands out for its brutality. The murder of photographer Zahra Kazemi on 19 July in Tehran’s Evine prison was the most outrageous evidence of that. Encouraging signs of emancipation in Sudan and the Maghreb have been resisted by the old absolutist reflexes of control at all levels and mistrust at all times.
As for the Americas, a lopsided division endured. Press freedom is generally respected in most countries, but is violated every day in Cuba, Haiti and Colombia, which continues to be the region’s most dangerous country. Four journalists were killed there. In North America, the confidentiality of sources was too often challenged.
Activism revives hopes
So, it was undeniably a bad year, especially if examined in detail. But to you in particular, to those of you who accompany us and who have perhaps been supporting us for some time by buying these books of photographs, which help finance our activity, we owe you more than this grim catalogue and the regret that it inspires. That could give the impression that we are giving in to despair, and it is not so. On the contrary, we reiterate our enduring conviction that it is the positive side of the balance sheet that should dictate what we do.
Our priority in this area is still support for journalists in prison and news media in difficulty. It is financed from the sale of books of photographs, calendars and a few other activities. In other words, we are talking about your support. It enabled us to make 130 grants in the form of direct assistance to the families of imprisoned journalists, payment of medical bills and payment of legal fees. The countries where we have given this kind of help include Cuba, Burma, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, China, Haiti and Vietnam.
How can we give way to discouragement when this kind of activism, these efforts - sometime unseen but always tenacious - revive hopes? All the more so when they lead to victory on one front or another. And that’s how we view the release of Moroccan journalist Ali Lmrabet, as a victory. Lmrabet was condemned to three years in prison for lèse-majesté in a cartoon, for an irreverent drawing of the king! The Reporters Without Borders-Fondation de France 2003 laureate was finally freed in January 2004, after seven months in prison.
These activities would not take place without the basis on which they are built, that is to say, the work of our (extraordinary) researchers, who gather information about press freedom violations, analyse and interpret them, and always try to get to the bottom of matters, often to the point of conducting fact-finding visits for further investigation in the field. The findings from their patient networking and their discrete but often dangerous enquiries can be found on our website (www.rsf.org). They show that we are working for the long term (we do not, for example, give up on such old cases as those of Norbert Zongo in Burkina Faso, Georgy Gongadze in Ukraine and Huang Qi in China) and that we are combatting the most terrible of all dangers, that old crimes could end up being forgotten. And we succeed, because the number of visits to our website have grown tenfold in less than two years!
Some wrongdoers get more cunning
Our various press and communications operations are more visible but they have the same goal - to rip apart the veil of silence and combat the resignation or indifference that might otherwise take hold. These poster, advertising and video campaigns, which you may remember, are made possible by various partnerships (with the Saatchi & Saatchi agency and the Benetton group research centre, Fabrica, for example). They are designed to alert the public, sometimes in a deliberately eye-catching fashion, to subjects dear to us: "Journalists killed" ... "Year of Algeria" ... Libya (a side-effect of which was our grotesque suspension from the UN Commission on Human Rights) ... and "Cuba si, Castro no." The Cuba campaign, which is still under way, included an unforgettable evening in a Champs-Elysées theatre on 29 September.
What else? June saw a second "Star photos," sponsored by Sophie Marceau. We inaugurated the first and only "House of Journalists" in Paris in December, offering a place where exiled journalists can stay. This beautiful project by Danièle Ohayon and Philippe Spinau was turned into reality with a major contribution from Reporters Without Borders.
As I conclude this evaluation, which necessarily has gaps, I see the need to underline a constant and point out a significant evolution. The constant? That press freedom is all the more threatened where there is either too much political authority (too many potentates of all kinds) or where there is too little, so that the rule of law gives way to violence. And the evolution? Not that the enemies of the press seem to be fewer or less determined. But that, aside from a few pathological cases that are well known to us, the wrongdoers are becoming more cunning. Frontal, bloody repression is deliberately being replaced by insidious, apparently legal harassment, economic pressures, protection of personal privacy, every kind of diversion including goodwill gestures to mislead public opinion. In short, they continue to hound journalists, but they are doing it with more finesse.
Finally, it unfortunately seems that the prevailing intolerance encourages manifestations of tension of every kind. Bans or threats to publicity campaigns, shows, books and films, live TV broadcasts with delayed transmission, self-censorship, compulsive recourse to lawsuits and prosecutions at the least wrong word, outrage made to order, oratorical prudence and rhetorical hypocrisy - isn’t free expression in the process of losing ground?
We obviously need to reflect more on this and seek appropriate responses. This means our work is not over. What more do we need to be roused to further action?
President, Reporters Without Borders - France