Joel Simon on Journalists Killed and Jailed in the Line of Duty

Paul McLeary
From CJR Daily
The Water Cooler
Feb. 24, 2006

Earlier this month, the Committee to Protect Journalists released its “Attacks on the Press 2005” report, which documents the number of journalists killed in the line of duty last year along with violent attacks on the press and journalists who have been imprisoned because of their work. Joel Simon, Deputy Director of the organization, spoke to CJR Daily this afternoon about the report, and the risks journalists face not only in Iraq, but around the world.

Paul McLeary: In your “Attacks on the Press 2005” report, released about two weeks ago, the CPJ reports that at least 64 journalists and 23 media workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, making it the deadliest conflict for the media in recent history. This number was criticized by Eason Jordan in the International Herald Tribune recently — who thinks that the real number is much higher — can you clear up the disagreement?

Joel Simon: I think Eason’s point was that the military, when it counts causalities, includes soldiers who are killed in combat situations and those who are killed in accidents. But we’re an advocacy organization, and while we’re obviously paying tribute to journalists who have been killed, what we’re really trying to do is hold governments and individuals who commit press freedom violations to account, and for that reason, we don’t include accidents. Accidents are regrettable but they’re not press freedom violations. Eason felt that because of that, we weren’t giving the full scope of the number of journalists killed, but that’s not the purpose of our list.

PM: Your 2005 report also stated that 125 journalists are currently being jailed worldwide. The United Sates comes in tied for sixth place on the list, with an Iraqi CBS employee and two Iraqi Reuters employees having been imprisoned last year.

JS: Actually, the Reuters employees were subsequently released. The list is a census, and on the date we took the census on December 1, there were four journalists in custody in Iraq and one in custody in Guantanamo Bay. The CBS cameraman remains in custody, where he has been since April last year. There’s been no due process, no explanation of why he’s being held. The other journalists have been released without charge. It makes us very skeptical that there was any evidence against them [in the first place], if there was, it seems that it would have been released. At the very least he’s entitled — and CBS is entitled — to know what evidence is being used against him.

PM: The CBS cameraman was arrested in Mosul, right? And the American military said that he had some incriminating footage on his camera.

JS: He was working in Mosul, right. But a number of the journalists that have been detained in Iraq have had footage on their camera of insurgent activities — but that’s their job. If that becomes the basis for suspicion, images of insurgents fighting on their cameras, then I think that the military is not taking in to account the role that journalists play there. So that concerns us; footage being used as potential piece of evidence against them.

PM: Just yesterday, the CPJ reported that “at least nine countries worldwide have now taken punitive actions against publications or their editors for reprinting one or more” of the depictions of Mohammad, and that “six newspapers in three countries have been forced to close and at least nine journalists in four countries have been arrested and face potential criminal prosecution.” Have you ever seen a worldwide crackdown like this before?

JS: Oh, absolutely. You’ve got to keep in mind that many of the governments that have taken action are repressive governments, looking for the latest excuse. After September 11, we saw repressive governments justify their actions by citing the war on terror, and some journalists were labeled as terrorists, and some actions were justified in the name of fighting terrorism. Our concern is that governments, particularly in the Middle East, are essentially using this as a pretext to crack down on critical publications. Publications who are facing this kind of harassment are [those] that have been critical of their governments.

PM: Take China, for instance, a country which has the most journalists in prison, what publications were these journalists working for?

JS: The largest group, actually, are Internet journalists. Sixteen of the 32 journalists in jail in China are in prison primarily because of information they published on the Internet. I’d say this is broadly indicative of the trend in China, which is to crack down in Internet speech. China seems determined to prove the world wrong that the Internet will liberate speech and is impossible to control. I don’t think we can be complacent [about this]. I think that there’s a real struggle going on right now over whether or not the Internet can be controlled, and China is really making a stand.

PM: So, these people published these things on personal blogs?

JS: There’s a variety of things. There were Internet essays, there were personal blogs, one journalist distributed information from the propaganda ministry that was sent to Chinese journalists that consisted of directives about how to cover the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. That was the instance where Yahoo! provided the Chinese government with an email that was used to convict him. In our view it’s all journalistic in nature, but there are a variety of Internet mediums being used.

PM: Do you see evidence of a crackdown on people who publish on the Internet in places other than China?

JS: China, I think, has made the most concerted effort of any country to control Internet speech, because China has the resources to do it, and because of the explosive growth of the economy, and so many people are online, the Chinese government has acknowledged that the Internet is an essential tool of economic develoPMent. So once they made that decision they also had to make the decision to control it so it can’t be used for subversive political speech. Then you’ve got a country like Cuba that has essentially opted out of the Internet. Cuban citizens do not have access to the Internet. But we have a smattering of cases around the world, in places like Tunisia — there have been some Internet cases in Yemen, Malaysia — there’s a pretty long list. But China is the leading country when it comes to cracking down on Internet dissent.

PM: According to CPJ, seven journalists have been killed so far in 2006. Obviously, Iraq and China seem to be the most dangerous places for journalists right now, but looking ahead, do you see anywhere else as being as dangerous?

JS: When you point to China and Iraq, you highlight the two kinds of risks that journalists confront. One is a kind of chaotic, lawless and violent environment. Iraq is, far and away, the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist, and probably the most dangerous place in our 25-year history. But there are other places where this kind of lawless violence is a threat: the Philippines, four journalists were killed there last year; Columbia, where it’s been an ongoing problem; the U.S./Mexico border, where we had a very disturbing incident recently in Nuevo Laredo, and the government of Mexico appointed a special prosecutor for crimes against journalists, which we think is a positive step.

With China, there’s a second kind of threat — where governments use repressive laws to curtail and control the press. China is the world’s leading jailer of journalists, but [prison is] also a threat in Cuba, which has 24 journalists in jail; in Eritrea; and Ethiopia, which has embarked on an enormous crackdown which has shot it up near to the top of the list of jailers of journalists. Some of those journalists are facing charges of genocide and treason, so that’s a very alarming situation.