Attacks on the Press in 2004: Introduction

by Ann Cooper

With its myriad dangers and devastating death toll, Iraq remained the worst place to practice journalism throughout 2004, and one of the most dangerous media assignments in recent history. Twenty-three journalists and 16 media support workers were killed on the job in Iraq during the year. An insurgent kidnapping campaign also posed severe threats–at least 22 journalists were abducted, and one of them was executed by his captors.

By late September, as the hostage-taking reached epidemic proportions and foreigners hunkered down in their heavily guarded hotels or compounds, the ability of foreign journalists to move about became so circumscribed that it was “like being under virtual house arrest,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi. In an e-mail that circulated widely on the Internet, Fassihi said she “can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling.”

Such restrictions left foreign news organizations increasingly reliant on their Iraqi employees, dozens of whom were threatened, attacked, or murdered in apparent reprisal for “collaborating” with Western media. Still others were killed in crossfire, some of them by U.S. forces. The year proved especially deadly for these local newspeople: Three-quarters of the journalists killed in Iraq in 2004 were Iraqis.

Violence in Iraq helped make 2004 the deadliest year in a decade for journalists worldwide, overshadowing other press freedom developments–including several important achievements. Among them: a landmark legal decision that could significantly strengthen freedom of expression guarantees in Latin America, and the release worldwide of more than two dozen journalists whose imprisonment had been the subject of international advocacy by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom groups.

The legal decision came from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding on more than 20 members of the Organization of American States. The court overturned the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican reporter Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, finding that critics of public officials must have “leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.” Legal experts said the court’s decision would make it far more difficult for Latin American governments to prosecute the press for criminal defamation.

The Herrera Ulloa decision came in a case championed by a broad coalition of press, legal, and human rights groups, including CPJ, which filed one of eight friend-of-the-court briefs. Such legal efforts, to ensure that journalists can report the news independently without fear of criminal prosecution, are aimed at establishing systemic reforms. But broad reforms are often long-term goals, and where governments resist such change, press freedom advocates must campaign case by case on behalf of individual journalists or media organizations.

The impact of such advocacy was recognized in February by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe. The assembly honored CPJ with its 2004 OSCE Prize for Journalism and Democracy, saying that, as a global watchdog for media freedom, “CPJ ensures that journalists who do face reprisals for their reporting are not forgotten and that their cases remain in the public eye.”

Keeping cases in the public eye prompted CPJ to recognize Burmese filmmakers Aung Pwint and Nyein Thit with International Press Freedom Awards in November. The two have suffered in jail since 1999 because they tried to document forced labor, rural hardship, and other grim realities of everyday life in Burma.

Public exposure helped lead to the 2004 release of imprisoned journalists in some of the world’s most repressive regimes, including Vietnam, China, and Cuba, although each of those countries continued to imprison other journalists. Among those freed were the Cuban writer Manuel Vázquez Portal, whom CPJ honored in 2003 with its International Press Freedom Award, and five of his fellow Cuban journalists.

Similar case-by-case progress defined press freedom news in other parts of the world as well. In the Philippines, authorities arrested a former police officer in the 2002 slaying of Edgar Damalerio, who was gunned down in full view of the local police station. The September arrest was a welcome development, raising the prospect of genuine justice in a journalist’s murder for the first time since the Philippines became a democracy in 1986. But that news came in a year when eight more journalists were hunted down and murdered in the Philippines; only Iraq was more deadly in 2004.

A July murder on the streets of central Moscow also brought into sharp focus the appalling deterioration of press freedom in Russia and most of the former Soviet Union. The assassination of American Paul Klebnikov, the editor of Forbes Russia, was the 11th contract-style killing of a journalist there since President Vladimir Putin took office in late 1999. As in the Philippines, no one has been convicted for any of the murders.

Klebnikov’s killing came 13 years into the harsh, post-Soviet struggle for democratic traditions and respect for basic human rights. A CPJ analysis of conditions in Russia and the 14 other former Soviet republics showed that since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, strong press freedom traditions have been established in only three post-Soviet states–the tiny European countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Elsewhere, the press operates with less freedom than it did in the closing years of Soviet communism.

At the worst extreme are the former Soviet states in Central Asia. In Tajikistan, President Imomal Rakhmonov bluntly warned media in March to work patriotically for “the protection of Tajikistan’s state and national interests,” while neighboring Turkmenistan pressures its state TV propagandists into sycophantic loyalty. Turkmen TV anchors regularly vow on the air that their tongues will shrivel should they ever slander the country, the flag, or the president.

Looking ahead in 2005, press freedom principles are at risk in places as different as Iran and the United States.

In Iran, where the traditional press has been stifled, a vibrant culture of Internet news blogging has captivated readers in growing numbers. But by the fall, it had also drawn the attention of a censorious government that arrested Internet journalists and closed Web sites in quick succession.

And in the United States, long seen as a model for press freedom, a journalistic pillar is under government assault. In a series of cases unprecedented in frequency, federal prosecutors and judges threatened U.S. journalists with prison if they refused to divulge confidential sources. At year’s end, television reporter Jim Taricani was serving six months of home confinement in Rhode Island, and two other journalists awaited rulings that could send them to prison. This new U.S. willingness to imprison journalists has already sent a disturbing message to governments worldwide.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine, there were new hopes that repression may yield to greater press freedom. The election of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, after massive street protests blocked his opponent from taking power in fraudulent balloting, appeared to signal a new era for a country mired in authoritarian corruption. One of Yushchenko’s early promises was a full investigation into the slaying of Internet journalist Georgy Gongadze, whose 2000 murder has been linked to the corrupt regime of former President Leonid Kuchma.

In a world where fundamental reforms come slowly, the importance of protecting individual journalists and news organizations is vital. In the east African country of Burundi, a radio station and its founder, Alexis Sinduhije, defy government pressures to bring a message of peace to a troubled land.

Sinduhije, who was honored in November with one of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Awards, takes head-on the ethnic conflict that has ravaged Burundi for decades: He hired both ethnic Hutus and Tutsis, some of them former fighters, because, “We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized.”

Sinduhije’s Radio Publique Africaine voices the concerns of ordinary people, he says. “We ask the political leaders to answer their concerns: Why are people kept in prison without trial? Why has their land been taken away? Exposing the truth in this way has brought Hutu and Tutsi communities together and made it harder for politicians to manipulate the public.”

Sinduhije reminds us that the struggle of an individual journalist is truly a collective one–and that the success of one person in one place can benefit many. So case by case, person by person, we move ahead: in Ukraine, where justice awaits in the brazen murder of Gongadze; in the Philippines, where an arrest in the Damalerio slaying is just the first step in halting a shocking culture of impunity; in Cuba, where 23 of Vázquez Portal’s colleagues remain behind bars merely for expressing their views; and in Burma, where two courageous filmmakers languish in prison for the crime of doing their jobs.

Ann Cooper is CPJ’s executive director. 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.