By Peter Arnett
“The truth is plain to see. Banning the truth does not eradicate it,” she exclaimed. “I still cannot comprehend, nor accept this ban.” Nadire, a free-lance reporter for the Inter Press Service, was facing a two-to-12-year jail term last year for writing a book about the lives of Turkish soldiers fighting Kurdish rebels, a book that had angered the Turkish Army’s influential General Staff.
As we flanked Nadire on the courthouse steps, it was a unique opportunity for CPJ Middle East program coordinator Joel Campagna and myself to support a brave journalist standing up to overbearing authority. Over its 20-year history, CPJ has become an important champion of press freedom, discomfiting authoritarian regimes around the world with detailed accounts of their abuses and challenging them to show more respect for their media.
The opportunity to help out a colleague in trouble is the CPJ undertaking that I, as a board member, most value. Several years ago, I joined a delegation that presented a jailed Turkish journalist with a CPJ International Press Freedom Award inside his actual prison cell–a visit that soon led to his release. Our sense of accomplishment made the difficult task of defending press freedom everywhere seem less daunting.
Any doubts I might have about the value of continuing the struggle for press freedom in war-wracked areas of the world are resolved when I touch down in a troubled country and commiserate with journalists desperate for recognition and assistance. On a mission to Sri Lanka last summer, CPJ Asia program coordinator Kavita Menon, Asia program consultant A. Lin Neumann, and I met with many local journalists under the gun from tough censorship rules and the widening civil war with the Tamil Tigers. They told us many stories about the difficulties and dangers of pursuing their profession, yet all were clearly determined to persevere despite the strain.
In a measure of CPJ’s growing influence overseas, we were received by two Sri Lankan Cabinet officials, Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera. We appealed to them to end the harsh censorship rules recently imposed on local and foreign journalists. The ministers heard us out, promised to ease censorship restrictions, and later kept some of their promises. It was not enough, but it was something to give the embattled local journalists, along with the awareness that their colleagues on the other side of the world had not forgotten them.
This past year, I witnessed the effectiveness of the continuing aggressive course of action pursued by CPJ under the leadership of board chair Gene Roberts and executive director Ann Cooper. It is paying off even in countries that have long been impervious to international pressure. For example, Angolan diplomats complained vociferously when CPJ named President José Eduardo dos Santos to our annual list of the Ten Worst Enemies of the Press in 2000 (see page 543), but then allowed a delegation to visit the capital, Luanda, to investigate the situation.
I was part of that delegation, led by Ann Cooper. We met with numerous local reporters who work in an environment where press freedom is almost non-existent and where crackdowns on independent journalism go hand-in-hand with state-sponsored disinformation campaigns.
One case we tried to crack in Angola was the conviction of journalist Rafael Marques on charges that he defamed President dos Santos in a July 1999 issue of the private weekly Agora. Seeking to help Marques regain his freedom to work and travel, we met with several Angolan officials, including Vice Minister Manuel Augusto, who assured us that his government would move to reverse policies that restrict and punish journalists for doing their jobs. Angola has yet to keep these promises. But since our visit in October, other human rights groups have been allowed to visit, and the dialogue we began continues. Meanwhile, President dos Santos remains on our list of the world’s worst enemies of the press.
A happy postscript: Nadire Mater’s case was resolved in her favor. In September, the court acquitted her on all charges in defiance of the Turkish Army. I was on the CPJ mission to Angola that day, but board member and former CPJ chair Kati Marton stood beside Nadire on the Beyoglu courthouse steps as she proudly received the congratulations of her friends and colleagues.
Peter Arnett is a CPJ board member who worked as a foreign correspondent for 40 years covering wars and revolutions in several continents, first for The Associated Press and then for CNN. Arnett won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the Vietnam War, and an Emmy for his coverage of the bombing of Baghdad for CNN. He lives in Virginia and is currently writing a book about CNN.