2005 brought more danger, less freedom to journalism

Paul Steiger
St. Petersburg Times
February 20, 2006

For 24 years, the Committee to Protect Journalists has remained steadfast in its mission to defend the press around the world. But in 2005, that mission meant paying unusual attention to what was happening at home.

From Iraq to China, from Uzbekistan to Zimbabwe, 2005 was another terrible year for journalists in much of the world. By CPJ’s count, more than 100 journalists were killed doing their jobs over the past two years, the deadliest such period in a decade. Twenty-four countries jailed 125 journalists in 2005, figures that reflect increases from the previous year.

The United States, long a bastion of press freedom, may have contributed to these disturbing trends. With a prominent U.S. reporter jailed for 85 days, new legal threats emerging every day, and the U.S. military stonewalling investigations into the deaths and detentions of journalists in Iraq, the press fared badly at the hands of U.S. authorities. The United States shot up CPJ’s list of countries imprisoning journalists, sharing sixth place with Burma.

I strongly suspect that there is a relationship between the rise in deaths and incarcerations abroad and the infringement of press freedom at home.

We journalists in the United States have long embraced an obligation to ourselves, to our colleagues, and, most of all, to the American public to defend press freedom whenever it is under threat in our country. The free flow of information is among the most basic safeguards of our democracy. Moreover, the importance of sustaining those safeguards extends beyond U.S. borders to journalists around the world. When the traditional protections for American reporters and editors are exploded, there is significant fallout in countless places where the basic right to work as a journalist is not protected by law or custom.

To put it simply, repressive governments are delighted when a democracy like the United States imprisons a journalist. It makes it easier for them to justify their own restrictive policies.

So this past year, CPJ met an unusual need to speak out on behalf of journalists put at risk in the United States or because of U.S. actions abroad, particularly in Iraq.

In 2005, CPJ called attention to the carnage at checkpoints in Iraq, reminding the U.S. Department of Defense that its own analysts had called for procedures to minimize accidental casualties among journalists and ordinary citizens. We also sought and received the help of Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the Armed Services Committee, to intervene with the Pentagon on behalf of jailed Iraqi journalists. These journalists, employed by global news organizations such as CBS and Reuters, have been held incommunicado and without charge for months, apparently under suspicion of aiding insurgents in Iraq. As of this writing, we have yet to see a resolution of this situation, which exacts a toll on each individual and interferes with important coverage.

We also spoke out against the incarceration of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was imprisoned for nearly three months in an effort to force her disclosure of the source who talked to her confidentially about CIA operative Valerie Plame and her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson. While recognizing that Miller’s journalism has generated some controversy among those who believe she was too trusting of her sources, CPJ called for her immediate release from jail. It seems clear to me that only extreme circumstances such as a clear and present danger to innocent people could justify using the threat of jail to gain the name of a confidential informant.

Amid all of these concerns for journalists worldwide, there were two signal successes for CPJ in 2005 that I found particularly inspiring. One was in Cuba, and the other was in the Philippines.

The power of CPJ’s work on behalf of beleaguered journalists came home to me with particular poignancy at November’s annual International Press Freedom Awards dinner in New York. In addition to the inspiring 2005 awardees, journalist Manuel Vázquez Portal accepted the honor he could not receive two years earlier because he was in a Cuban jail for expressing his views. He was freed in large part because of CPJ’s efforts to spotlight the injustice.

“Today, because of so many generous words, so much effort by so many, I was able to come here to meet you, thank you personally, and ask you to come with me once again to rescue from loneliness, obscurity, and imprisonment more than 20 journalists who are still locked up in Cuban jails,” Vázquez Portal said that night. “It is on their behalf and for them that I accept this award. They need it. May it reach them and set them free.”

Paul E. Steiger is managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, a vice president of Dow Jones & Company, and a member of the Dow Jones executive committee. He was elected chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2005. This is adapted from a preface from the committee’s book, Attacks on the Press in 2005.