Attacks on the Press 1999: Introduction

By Ann Cooper
As a foreign correspondent covering the Soviet Union a decade ago, I was an eyewitness to a dramatic example of the press’ critical role in building democracy. Granted a bit of freedom by Mikhail Gorbachev’s mid-1980s glasnost policy, long-suppressed Soviet journalists set their own daring agenda: they probed forbidden history, investigated contemporary corruption, and encouraged fellow citizens to voice opinions that had been ruthlessly stifled for decades under Communist Party rule.

And in August, 1991, the press courageously stared down hard-line communists who threatened to snuff out their freedoms with an attempted coup against Gorbachev. Without Soviet media, it is not at all certain that the peaceful rebellion against the 1991 putsch would have succeeded.

After the triumph of 1991, the story grew more complicated, and often quite bleak. In early 2000, as the Committee to Protect Journalists assesses the state of press freedom around the world, the plight of Russian journalists under the new regime of Vladimir Putin–particularly those trying to report independently on the conflict in Chechnya–offers a sobering lesson: in countries where democracy is still an elusive goal, press freedom can easily come and go.

In Indonesia, for example, the post-Suharto government that granted far-reaching freedoms to the press in 1998 was the same government that stood aside in 1999, allowing Indonesian-backed militias to harass, assault, and even murder journalists attempting to cover the independence movement in East Timor.

In Yugoslavia, years of on-again, off-again tolerance of independent radio broadcasters ended abruptly in March, when the start of NATO’s bombing campaign triggered a harsh government crackdown on all independent media in Belgrade.

In Zimbabwe, where independent newspapers have been granted a certain latitude under President Robert Mugabe’s 20 years of one-party rule, the military arrested and tortured two journalists in January. Mugabe denied the torture, but said he couldn’t condemn his army if journalists “provoked” it.

Documenting these attacks is the first step in CPJ’s work of press freedom advocacy. Each report we receive is carefully checked, to determine whether the target was a journalist or media outlet, and whether the attack was directly related to journalistic work. Only cases that meet those criteria are included in this, our annual report of attacks on the press.

Of the hundreds of cases documented each year, a relative handful always stand out as particular barometers of the state of press freedom. These are the lists of journalists killed (34 in 1999) or imprisoned (86 in 1999) because of their work.

The first measure, murdered journalists, reflects a disturbing increase from a year earlier, when 24 journalists were killed. Of the 34 journalists on this year’s list, 10 were killed in Sierra Leone, and of those 10, most died within the space of a few days in January. Their stories, told elsewhere in this book, provide grisly evidence of what we believe is an ominous trend: with civil conflicts increasing in all regions of the world, the armed factions fighting them often see journalists as witnesses to be eliminated.

By another important measure, the number of journalists in prison, press freedom could be seen as improving. As of the end of 1999, CPJ recorded 86 journalists in prison, down from 118 a year earlier, and 129 in 1997. China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists, with 19 in prison at year’s end, nearly a quarter of the total. Eighteen journalists were imprisoned in Turkey at year’s end, a significant drop from the 27 journalists held a year earlier and a welcome improvement in a country that had topped the imprisoned list for several years.

Though a variety of laws are used against journalists, criminal libel statutes remain the most worrisome threat to independent journalism. All over the world, dozens of countries maintain criminal penalties for libel. CPJ opposes such laws; we believe that civil penalties provide adequate remedy in cases of genuine libel, and that the threat of jail has a chilling effect on independent, investigative journalism. This is particularly true in countries where the judiciary has little or no independence from the public officials who are most likely to bring a libel suit–generally because they want to suppress uncomfortable news about themselves.

Murdered journalists, and those sitting behind bars because of their words, provide the most dramatic examples of how far enemies of the press will go to silence independent journalists. But in the hundreds of cases documented here, in 119 countries around the world, you will also find many examples of more subtle (but often no less effective) modes of repression. In our special report on the media in Pakistan, for instance, the government’s relentless use of tax laws, import regulations, and other bureaucratic harassment against the Jang Newspaper Group is a graphic example of how governments wield laws that seem unrelated to censorship to disguise their repressive agendas.

When CPJ documents such cases, our intent–as with any investigative journalism–is to expose the attacks and bring pressure on the attackers. We believe this is the least we can do for our colleagues around the world who work in repressive and even totalitarian environments.

Our advocacy has often been instrumental in reversing an action against a journalist. And even when the advocacy process is long, and slow to yield results, our colleagues tell us it is important to hear the voices of other journalists from around the world, raised in defense of press freedom. In New York last November, CPJ honored five brave journalists from around the world at our International Press Freedom Awards dinner. Kosovar Albanian journalist Baton Haxhiu, the dynamic editor of the Pristina daily Koha Ditore, told 800 dinner guests that they held “the key to progress and democracy in the Balkans. And especially you in the media. Anything is possible with you … I need your help and your presence in Kosovo.”

Ann K. Cooper is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before joining CPJ in 1998, she was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years, serving as bureau chief in Moscow and Johannesburg. She is co-editor of  Russia at the Barricades, a collection of eyewitness accounts of the August 1991 coup in the Soviet Union. In 1995-96, she was the Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also worked as a reporter for The Sun  in Baltimore and National Journal  magazine, among other publications.