Attacks on the Press 2000: Introduction

By Ann Cooper

IN THE COMMUNITY OF JOURNALISTS WHO HAVE CHRONICLED the past decade’s worst wars, the news last May was devastating. Two of the world’s most dedicated war correspondents, Kurt Schork of Reuters and Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of The Associated Press, were killed in a rebel ambush in Sierra Leone, a country where civil strife has claimed the lives of 15 local journalists and foreign correspondents since 1997. The haunting image on the cover of this book is Gil Moreno, whose camera took television viewers into the bloody heart of late 20th century conflict.

Gil Moreno and Schork were among 24 journalists killed because of their work in 2000. Combat is the ultimate hazard of war reporting, but reporters don’t have to be at the front to take heavy risks when writing about war. When Angola’s 25-year civil war erupted anew in late 1998, for example, the government denounced journalists as “unpatriotic” for reporting that the sons of government officials were dodging the draft.

Sri Lanka’s government was so determined to hide rebel military advances in 2000 that it imposed prior censorship on all war reporting. Violators faced arrest or the closure of their publications. In Russia, authorities are quick to punish media that publish interviews with rebel Chechen leaders; they have even pressured neighboring governments, in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, to restrict local press coverage of Chechnya.

When CPJ confronts governments about these abuses, we are sometimes told, “There’s a war going on. So of course we need censorship for national security reasons.” That notion is not confined to autocratic regimes; during the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict, for example, journalists fumed at the strict access limits imposed by Western governments.

But war should never be an excuse to jeopardize the fundamental rights of free speech and freedom of the press. Indeed, society is most in need of accurate information during wartime. Without it, civilian lives are endangered, and public opinion gets shaped by rumor and propaganda instead of by facts.

In 2000, the Russian government was particularly obsessed with restricting press coverage of the war in Chechnya. Nearly all correspondents were forced to travel with Russian military guides who strictly controlled what they could see and learn.

That restriction did not stop Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who shunned the army, traveled with rebels, and came out with devastating pictures and stories of Russian losses that the government had tried to conceal. But when Babitsky returned to Chechnya, he disappeared into the hands of the Russian military, which falsely claimed to have turned him over to a Chechen rebel faction in exchange for Russian prisoners of war. Only after an intense international pressure campaign from Western governments and press freedom groups, including CPJ, did Babitsky reappear in February 2000.

As CPJ marks its 20th anniversary in 2001, it remains dedicated to documenting and exposing such abuses. Whether journalists are under attack from governments, criminal mafias, paramilitaries, or rebel forces, we believe exposure is the best antidote to repression.

Sometimes, journalists have no choice but to flee for their lives. In recent years, CPJ has helped colleagues escape to safety from hot spots such as Colombia and Sierra Leone. Elsewhere, we work with determined independent journalists, some of whom have endured years of pressure and punishment to keep reporting the news.

Under Slobodan Milosevic, Yugoslavia’s independent media suffered a decade of violence, imprisonment, and huge fines imposed under an absurd press law. CPJ’s emergency assistance helped some of them survive in exile or underground.

Throughout the 1990s, CPJ maintained a steady drumbeat of protest on behalf of Yugoslavia’s independent journalists. After documenting dozens of abuses, we denounced Milosevic as one of the world’s Ten Worst Enemies of the Press in 1999 and 2000. In the end, the journalists outlasted their oppressor. Milosevic’s defeat in 2000 opened a new era for the Yugoslav media.

Another of our Ten Worst Enemies of the Press fell from power in 2000: Alberto Fujimori of Peru, who worked hard to stamp out all opposition, including the media. As in Yugoslavia, though, a core of independent journalists survived the Fujimori era. They can now help Peru move toward democracy.

In its 20 years of work, CPJ has grown from a handful of volunteers to a fulltime staff of 20, including regional specialists who documented the 600-plus cases in this book, and who maintain close contact with a worldwide network of independent journalists. Despite this network, we know there are abuses that remain unreported. We work constantly to improve our contacts in provincial areas, where journalists are especially vulnerable.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of provincial vulnerability came in northern Thailand last April, when outspoken editor Amnat Khunyosying was gunned down on a quiet street in the town of Chiang Mai. Amnat survived, despite a near-fatal bullet wound in his stomach. And local police arrested four Thai Army soldiers for the attempted assassination. But local prosecutors have dragged their feet in organizing an effective case against the soldiers as well as the local politician suspected of masterminding the assault. So Amnat has hired his own lawyers to prod the prosecution.

CPJ has supported that effort, by raising emergency assistance for Amnat and by monitoring the trial of his would-be killers. Amnat wrote recently to say, “Because of your help, I have…spirit to fight…all black influences, although my life is still in danger.”

Ann 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.