Attacks on the Press in 2006: Introduction

By Joel Simon

As Venezuelan elections approached in November, President Hugo Chávez accused news broadcasters of engaging in a “psychological war to divide, weaken, and destroy the nation.” Their broadcast licenses, he said, could be pulled–no idle threat in a country where a vague 2004 media law allows the government to shut down stations for work deemed “contrary to the security of the nation.”

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin signed a measure in July that equates critical journalism with terrorism, broadening the definition of extremism to include “public slander toward figures fulfilling state duties.” Within months, a human rights publisher was shut down.

In Iraq, gunmen raced up to a group of journalists covering the February attack on the Shiite Askariya shrine, seized one the region’s best-known reporters, Atwar Bahjat, and executed her and two members of her crew.

And as fighting raged in southern Lebanon in July, an Israeli missile killed photographer Layal Najib as she was traveling by taxi to cover fleeing civilians. Israel later announced that all vehicles traveling in southern Lebanon, including those carrying journalists, would be subject to attack.

These four scenes, taken from the pages of this book, illustrate two grave and emerging threats to the press. Events in Iraq and Lebanon reflect the erosion in war correspondents’ traditional status as neutral observers. Presidents Chávez and Putin represent a generation of sophisticated, elected leaders who have created a legal framework to control, intimidate, and censor the news media.

The rise of “democratators”–popularly elected autocrats–is alarming because it represents a new model for government control of the press. These leaders stand for election and express rhetorical support for democratic institutions while using measures such as punitive tax audits, manipulation of government advertising, and sweeping content restrictions to control the news media. The democratators tolerate the façade of democracy–a free press, opposition political parties, an independent judiciary–while gutting it from within.

These leaders emerged as the authoritarian response to positive historical developments. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union discredited a political system that not only necessitated state control of information but also justified it in moral terms. Human rights and press freedom groups such as CPJ, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2006, have also made it far more difficult for governments to engage in overt terror, such as the widespread “disappearances” of Latin American journalists in the 1970s.

Even repressive governments are now compelled to present themselves as democracies in order to gain international legitimacy. That’s a big advancement for press freedom and human rights, but the democratators’ new techniques cannot be underestimated.

Leaders who jail journalists sometimes argue that they are complying with international law and are respectful of due process. The Ethiopian government raised the specter of the slaughter in Rwanda when it arrested and jailed more than a dozen journalists on charges of attempted genocide. In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in March, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi insisted he was acting within the law to protect the state. But CPJ’s review of the evidence found the charges entirely without merit.

Other nations take a revolving-door approach, imprisoning journalists and releasing them before an international outcry. Iran is the best example. Since 2000, Iranian courts have banned more than 100 publications and jailed dozens of journalists; most were freed after relatively short periods but with the official threat of re-arrest hanging over their heads. Journalists get the message. In August, Akbar Ganji, one of the few Iranian journalists to spend an extended period in prison, visited CPJ’s office and argued that the debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has obscured the government’s efforts to destroy civil society and wipe out a once-vibrant independent media.

Other nations manipulate state advertising to reward supportive news outlets and to punish the critical ones. In countries where government agencies and national companies are economic engines, the practice can be devastating to media organizations that ask tough questions. In Argentina, President Néstor Kirchner’s administration directs an advertising budget of 160 million pesos without clear safeguards against partisanship. An independent Argentine research group said the advertising practices have caused serious damage to press freedom.

Certainly, there are countries that still rely on brute force; Cuba and Eritrea, where dozens of journalists are imprisoned, are among them. But overt repression, more and more, has given way to other techniques.

Calculated indifference is one. In “Deadly News,” a 2006 CPJ investigation, our researchers found that 85 percent of journalist murders in the last 15 years were committed with complete impunity. Even when some convictions were obtained, masterminds were brought to justice in just 7 percent of cases. This unsolved violence provokes massive self-censorship. And that suits many governments just fine.

Thirteen journalists in Russia, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, have been murdered since President Vladimir Putin took power in 2000. None of the killers have been brought to justice. This record causes reporters to ask fewer questions, to probe less deeply, to pass up risky stories. After all, one reporter told CPJ, to follow in Politkovskaya’s path would be “taking on a suicide mission.” Putin, while professing concern, benefits from this state of fear.

In Colombia, a long history of impunity has blunted critical reporting in provincial areas where violence remains rampant. President Álvaro Uribe Vélez had publicly denied the prevalence of self-censorship until he met with a CPJ delegation in March. After some prompting, Uribe acknowledged the problem and recognized that government officials who interfere with the press are “committing a crime against democracy.”

The practice of journalism, in fact, is protected by international law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to seek, receive, and impart information; this right is reinforced in many regional human rights agreements. Journalists operating in war zones are also protected under the Geneva Conventions, which state that journalists are civilians who cannot be deliberately targeted.

But in an era in which even U.S. officials describe the Geneva Conventions as “quaint,” these protections increasingly exist in name only. The breakdown of international norms is reflected in many ways. In southern Lebanon, Israel refused to make any provision to allow news coverage during the summer offensive, and, in several instances documented by CPJ, its forces actually targeted press vehicles.

In Iraq, the most dangerous conflict in CPJ’s history, insurgents so routinely target reporters that more than two-thirds of media deaths are murders, not acts of war. Fourteen journalists have been killed by U.S. forces’ fire; while CPJ has not found evidence that the killings were deliberate, none were adequately investigated by the military. U.S. forces have also detained at least nine Iraqi journalists for months at a time without charge or due process. The most recent was Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Bilal Hussein of The Associated Press.

Journalists traditionally rely more on savvy than international law to stay alive in war zones, often promising insurgent and guerrilla groups an opportunity to get their message out to the world. But many insurgents today aren’t interested in the bargain, preferring to speak via the Internet. Among these groups, journalists are dispensable.

The state of affairs is deeply disturbing because it means that the public knows little about vital issues–from the goals and leadership of the Iraqi insurgency to the implications of China’s breakneck economic development. Even as China builds a modern and prosperous economy, it is depriving its citizens of basic information. More than 120 million people are online in China, but the government has erected massive firewalls and, at times, enlisted corporate cooperation to control the medium.

The flood of information that circulates in the Internet age can blind us to the fact that enemies of press freedom still succeed in keeping vital stories from the public eye. As these pages make clear, we are saturated with information but often deprived of essential news.

Joel Simon
is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.