Few years have started off as badly for Reporters Without Borders as 2005. On 5 January, we were horrified to learn of the kidnapping of Florence Aubenas, special correspondent in Iraq for the French daily paper Libération, and her local guide Hussein Hanoun. Every kidnapping is painful for families, friends, employers and colleagues of the journalists held hostage. But this one was especially so because Aubenas is a good friend of Reporters Without Borders who has always campaigned with us to defend jailed or persecuted journalists, especially in Tunisia.
So just a few days after the safe return to France of two other kidnapped French journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, we had to launch a new campaign and ask everyone to switch to the new victims and lobby just as hard for them. We weren’t disappointed. The response was excellent and Aubenas and Hanoun were freed on 11 June, after 157 days.
Meanwhile, other foreign and local journalists were kidnapped in Iraq and then freed. They included Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena and Romanian journalists Marie-Jeanne Ion and Sorin Dumitru Miscoci. Unfortunately, the kidnappings show no sign of ending and each week brings new ones.
As this is being written, the fate of American reporter Jill Carroll, of the Christian Science Monitor, and Rim Zeid and Marwan Khazaal, of the Iraqi station Sumariya TV, is uncertain. Once again, we can’t let up in our campaigning. We have to remind the kidnappers every day that Carroll and her Iraqi colleagues were simply doing their job as journalists and that nothing can justify subjecting them to this terrible ordeal.
But press freedom isn’t threatened just in Iraq. Next door, in Beirut, journalists live in fear of being attacked. Two senior journalists, Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni, of the daily paper An-Nahar, were killed in car-bomb attacks during the year and a star presenter for the TV station LBC, May Chidiac, was seriously wounded in another.
Lebanon has the best record for press freedom in the Arab world but is now moving towards self-censorship. The best-known political commentators are moving about carefully and no longer dare to openly criticise neighbouring Syria, which is accused by many of being behind the attacks. Others have gone into exile, to France and elsewhere.
Press freedom has its predators
Reporters Without Borders compiles an annual worldwide list of predators of press freedom to show which powerful people are attacking journalists and media outlets. This very exclusive club expanded in 2005 to include new Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who made inflammatory remarks as soon as he took office and forced reformist newspapers to close down.
Heads of state sometimes develop a sudden urge, after years in power, to crack down hard on personal freedoms. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, after two decades of fairly moderate rule, got tough a few years ago and turned his country into a nightmare for journalists and anyone who wanted to express themselves freely. Nepal’s King Gyanendra followed suit in 2005, when he assumed full powers on 1 February and began censoring hundreds of media outlets, especially the many independent radio stations, and arresting truckloads of journalists.
In 2006, other fears have arisen, such as with the victory in Palestinian elections of Hamas, which has little time for critical or independent media. Elections in Haiti and Peru could also affect press freedom one way or the other.
Leadership changes elsewhere inspire hope. Authoritarian reflexes persist in Ukraine, but new President Viktor Yushchenko seems determined to end the brutal and repressive practices of his predecessor. Liberia’s new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa, has been welcomed by all and the war-exhausted country’s media can breathe again.
The most deadly year for a decade
2005 was a bloody one, with at least 63 journalists and five media assistants killed worldwide and more than 1,300 media workers attacked or threatened - the highest toll since 1995, when Algerian Islamic fundamentalist groups attacked anyone who didn’t support them. Violence against journalists is now routine in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nigeria and Mexico and it goes unpunished.
A few killers of journalists were arrested and given prison sentences in 2005 but others are still walking free. Guilty policemen, soldiers, drug-traffickers, members of armed groups and criminals of all stripes are still at large and know they’re safe from the law. Impunity is still the main enemy of human rights activists.
Exile abroad is one result of such violence. The Journalists’ Residence for refugee media workers, set up in Paris with the help of Reporters Without Borders, is as full as ever. Similar houses ought to be opened in cities such as London, Madrid, New York and Berlin, wherever journalists flee to escape death or imprisonment.
Reporters Without Borders often hears that a journalist has disappeared, leaving no word with employers and family who suffer terribly in their search for signs or news of the missing person. We’ve added a special page to our website (www.rsf.org) so that vanished journalists such as cameraman Fred Nérac and reporter Guy-André Kieffer, as well as the lesser-known Acquitté Kisembo, Ali Astamirov and Djamil Fahassi, are not forgotten.
New tasks on the horizon
Imprisonment is the favour weapon of authoritarian rulers to silence journalists and more than 100 currently languish in jails around the world. The picture is much the same from year to year and China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and Burma are still the countries holding most journalists.
In these places, a sharp commentary, an over-strong adjective or an irritating news item are immediately dubbed “threats to public order,” “sedition” or “undermining state security.” Punishment can be five, 10 or even 20-year prison sentences, as well as cancellation of civil rights, all aimed at breaking the journalist involved and frightening others who might utter some critical or disobedient thought.
No form of media escapes censorship, not even blogs, which soared in number in 2005. Many journalists in Iran or Tunisia, for example, turn to the Internet when censored in the mainstream media. Websites, personal pages and blogs in such countries have become the only source of opposition or independent news. But the censors are watching and bar access to sites and filter, monitor or delete material they don’t like. China is by far the top world expert at this but other countries are catching up.
But our focus isn’t all on countries south or east. We must also keep a careful eye on press freedom in Europe and North America. It would be foolish to compare the plight of journalists in Burma with those in Europe. But it needs to be pointed out that not everything is perfect in Western democracies.
The battle to defend the secrecy of journalistic sources, which landed American journalist Judith Miller in prison, is more pressing than ever. The issue is hotly debated in France, Belgium and neighbouring countries. The repeated searches of journalists’ homes and offices in several European Union member-states are alarming. Concentration of media ownership, even if it doesn’t yet seem to much affect media diversity and freedom, will also perhaps concern us in the future.
Some good news too
There was also good news in 2005, which encourages us to continue campaigning. The release of a journalist, the reopening of a censored media outlet or the sentencing of an enemy of press freedom cheer us and make us cautiously optimistic. The media is freer now in India, some Central American countries and the Indonesian province of Aceh.
Reporters Without Borders has helped to reform the press laws in Mauritania and hopes to do the same in Chad and Cameroon. Mexico has set up a special prosecutor’s office to investigate attacks on journalists, showing that it acknowledges the serious situation.
The row over the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed printed in a Danish newspaper in September is a sign that people are very interested in freedom of expression. The definition of that often varies from one continent to another, but the row has shown that nobody is indifferent to the issue. And making an issue of press freedom can only benefit us all.
2006 Annual report