Family and colleagues suffered four months of anguish, waiting and disappointed hopes after the kidnapping of French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot and their guide Mohammed al-Jundi in Iraq on 20 August 2004.
No journalists had been kidnapped for that long since French photographer Brice Fleutiaux was held by an armed group in Chechnya for eight months in 1999-2000. But the determined support for them paid off and a few days before Christmas, their kidnappers gave them a gift they never expected and freed them, to spend the holidays safely with their families.
Reporters Without Borders had never seen such worldwide support for journalists. All heads of state and political and religious leaders with influence in the Arab world called for their release. Even groups of armed extremists who had attacked civilians joined the call to free them.
But the happy outcome must not hide the grim reality that press freedom is having a hard time. It’s being attacked, trampled on, disdained or ignored everywhere in the world.
A year of mourning
53 journalists were killed while doing their job or for expressing their opinions in 2004, the most since 1995 at the height of attacks by Islamic radicals in Algeria that killed more than 50 journalists in less than two years.
Iraq remains the world’s most dangerous place for the media, with 19 journalists killed there in 2004 and more than a dozen kidnapped. One kidnapping ended in the execution of Italian reporter Enzo Baldoni by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" on 26 August.
Italians loudly accused their government of not doing all it could to save him. Should it have given in to the kidnappers’ demands to pull Italian troops out of Iraq? Was the extremists’ deadline taken seriously enough by the Italian government? A parliamentary commission will answer these questions in 2005.
Iraq was not the only minefield for journalists. Sixteen were killed in Asia in 2004, nearly all because of their opinions. Exposing corrupt politicians or investigating organised crime proved fatal for journalists in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
On the other side of the world, in the Americas, violence against journalists increased as druglords and corrupt political elites objected to their activities being exposed by the media. Journalists were killed in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.
The murder in Gambia of Deyda Hydara, the local Reporters Without Borders correspondent (the first one to be killed in the organisation’s 20-year history), was a reminder that Africa is still liable to unpredictable violence.
A fact-finding mission was sent at once to monitor the police enquiry and make its own investigation into the killing, which seemed to be the work of the regime. Hydara was a tireless independent journalist who boldly and impartially denounced abuses of power in his country.
The solid wall of impunity that human rights defenders face all over the world showed a few cracks in 2004 and the killers of some journalists were called to account. In Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines and elsewhere, they were convicted or at least arrested and charged.
This was very far from being enough but it was a step on the road towards punishing those who think justice means forgetting or means allegiance to the authorities, as in Burkina Faso and Belarus, for example.
Silence! Go to jail!
Killing a journalist is not the only way to silence the dissident voices that jar in the ears of dictators. 107 journalists were in prison around the world on 1 January 2005. Long-standing tyrannies are blocking all democratic progress in Asia, where China remains the world’s biggest prison for journalists, with 26 detained.
But China’s economic opening-up to the outside world should benefit freedom of expression. A few media outlets try to buck censorship and mention forbidden topics, but repression is getting worse and they are quickly punished for stepping out of line. Journalists have been in prison for several years in Burma and Vietnam.
The release of well-known poet Raúl Rivero and six other journalists in Cuba in 2004 was good news, but two years after the March 2003 wave of dissident arrests, the country is one of the few in the world where news is a state monopoly. 22 journalists are still in prison there.
The worst rubs off on the best
The worst are a handful of countries whose inhabitants are suffocated by crude, ridiculous but very powerful propaganda, led by North Korea, where there is no recognisable "journalism." The staff of the regime’s media work in fear, glorifying the achievements of the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, and risk being sent to a "re-education" camp just for spelling errors.
In Turkmenistan, a medieval-style state ruled by a "president-for-life" more concerned with building statues of himself than allowing his subjects to enjoy press freedom, the few journalists who dare to work for the foreign media, often secretly, are routinely threatened and physically attacked.
All independent media in Eritrea, an arid state that won independence by armed force in 1993, have been shut down since 2001. Their editors and staff are in prison and foreign correspondents are not allowed to stay in the country.
At the other end of the spectrum are democratic governments in Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia, where very few if any topics are off-limits, where no journalists are in jail, where the state does not excessively interfere. Yet worrying attacks on freedom of expression occurred there in 2004.
Several journalists in the United States were being prosecuted for refusing to reveal their sources to courts. Some even risk going to prison or being held under house arrest, all new in a country where the national constitution says people do not have to testify against themselves.
The confidentially of sources was also attacked by the judiciary in France through formal questioning of journalists, legal summonses and raids on journalists’ homes and offices. Parliament also approved a law creating new press offences punishable with imprisonment. The move contrasted with a trend among some not very democratic governments, especially in Africa, to decriminalise press offences.
20 years of fighting for press freedom
Reporters Without Borders will be 20 years old in 2005, a good moment to sum up. Sadly, judging by the number of journalists killed, imprisoned or physically attacked in 2004, our fight is more important than ever.
Press freedom is not guaranteed everywhere in the world. As some lights of free expression are lit, others are extinguished. Things are improving in Haiti and Ukraine, but worsening in Algeria and Pakistan. Newspapers are flourishing in the streets of Kabul and being burned on street corners in Abidjan.
Reporters Without Borders will keep on protesting, exposing and condemning these situations, but will also give help to journalists and media outlets that need it. We made about 100 financial assistance grants in 2004, as in previous years, to pay lawyers’ fees, offer shelter to exiled journalists, pay the rent for suspended media, re-equip ransacked offices and meet other needs.
These efforts won’t change the world overnight, but they fight the erosion of press freedom and resist the abuses of authoritarian regimes. It’s not enough. But it’s a vital task.