Attacks on the Press 1999: United States

Since its founding in 1981, CPJ has, as a matter of strategy and policy, concentrated on press freedom violations and attacks on journalists outside the United States. CPJ aims to devote its efforts to those countries where journalists are most in need of international support and protection. As a result, we do not systematically monitor problems facing journalists in any of the developed industrial democracies.

While CPJ recognizes that press freedom requires constant vigilance and aggressive defense at home as well as abroad, we are able to rely within the United States on the thorough, professional efforts of organizations with a primarily domestic focus, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the National Association of Broadcasters, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society of Professional Journalists, among others. We recommend to journalists and other researchers the bulletins and annual reports of these and similar organizations, as well as the ongoing coverage of First Amendment issues provided by the American Journalism Review, the Columbia Journalism Review, Editor & Publisher, and other specialized publications.

On U.S. policy issues directly affecting the ability of U.S. reporters to work safely and legally abroad, CPJ works with domestic journalism organizations to effect constructive change.

CPJ’s overriding concern in the United States continues to be the safety of immigrant journalists and cases of journalists who are murdered for reasons related directly to their profession. As a U.S. organization that forcefully urges governments around the world to investigate and prosecute the assassinations of local journalists, we believe that it is essential to hold our own government equally accountable when similar crimes are committed at home. Since the widely publicized 1976 murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, at least 11 other journalists have been murdered in the United States because of their work. In all but one case, the victims were immigrant journalists working in languages other than English. Most received little or no national media attention. In December 1994, CPJ released a 60-page report on these murders entitled Silenced: The Unsolved Murders of Immigrant Journalists in the United States.

One of the cases included in that report was the murder of El Diario – La Prensa editor Manuel de Dios Unanue, who was gunned down in a Queens restaurant in 1992. On April 17, 1999, Guillermo León Restrepo, the last person wanted by the United States in connection with the murder, was arrested in Colombia on charges of illegal enrichment. Restrepo reportedly took out a contract on de Dios for US$50,000. The United States will not seek his extradition for de Dios’s murder, however, because its 1997 extradition treaty with Colombia is not retroactive.

CPJ took up two other U.S. cases in 1999, both involving coverage of immigrant communities. On February 2, a gang of baseball-bat-wielding men burst into the office of the Urdu-language paper Sada-E-Pakistan in Brooklyn, New York, and seriously beat editor Shafqat Chughtai. A prominent Pakistani travel agency owner, whom Sada-E-Pakistan had accused of cheating immigrants, has been arrested and charged with ordering the attack. CPJ accompanied Chughtai during his initial meeting with the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, and has continued to monitor the investigation.

CPJ also took up the case of Robert Friedman, a free-lance investigative journalist based in New York, who received several death threats from Russian organized-crime figures who were angered by his reporting. In June 1998, Friedman was contacted by the FBI and told that “a Russian organized-crime figure” had taken out a contract on his life. In February 1999, frustrated that the FBI had not taken sufficient action to investigate the threats, Friedman alerted CPJ. Subsequently, a Russian alleged gangster named Vyacheslav Ivankov, who had mailed Friedman a Valentine’s Day card containing a death threat from federal prison in upstate New York, was transferred to the maximum-security prison in Lewisburg, Pa.

On March 15, CPJ met with FBI assistant director Lewis Schiliro to discuss the threats against Friedman. On August 19, The New York Times reported that another alleged Russian gangster, Semyon Yukovich Mogilevich, had taken out the US$100,000 contract on Friedman’s life. In an August 26 letter to Schiliro, CPJ expressed its continued concern for Friedman’s safety.

As part of its campaign to eliminate criminal-defamation statutes from the legal systems in the Americas, CPJ has expressed concern to U.S. officials about the fact that at least 20 states (including the District of Columbia) still have laws on the books that classify libel as a criminal offense. Such statutes are clearly unconstitutional and would be overturned by the Supreme Court if they were used to prosecute journalists on account of their work. CPJ believes that state legislatures should purge all criminal defamation statutes from the books, in order to set an example to countries throughout the Americas and the world where journalists are routinely jailed because of what they write.