Life and liberty: Press freedom’s fight on two fronts

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The leading indicators of press freedom–journalists killed and journalists jailed for their work–have headed in the wrong direction for much of this decade, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said during a Capitol Hill conference on press security hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for International Media Assistance, and the Congressional Press Freedom Caucus. They represent the two main fronts in the struggle for press freedom worldwide, said Simon, who appeared along with Russian journalist Fatima Tlisova, Colombian reporter Jennifer Manrique, and Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute. Wednesday’s conference marked World Press Freedom Day, May 3. Simon’s remarks follow:

“It’s an honor to be here today as we mark World Press Freedom Day. I’d like to thank the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for International Media Assistance, and especially Rep. Adam Schiff and his colleagues in the Press Freedom Caucus for hosting this vital discussion.

“I’d like to begin by talking about the arc of press freedom, and how it has expanded over the last few decades.

“When CPJ was founded in 1981, the world was a very dangerous place for journalists. Dictatorships dominated Latin America, the Iron Curtain was firmly in place, and repressive governments held sway in much of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Over the next two decades, we saw an explosion of press freedom as the Iron Curtain collapsed, democracy was restored in Latin America, and repressive governments lightened their touch.

“But more recently there’s been a reversal. Over the last decade, we’ve seen press freedom trend in the wrong direction as suggested by the leading indicators, the number of journalists in prison and the number in jail.

“The September 11 attacks and the advent of the war on terror mark a turning point for press freedom. The number of journalists killed in the line of duty skyrocketed in the last eight years to unprecedented levels. Iraq, where 138 journalists and 51 media workers have been killed, is the deadliest conflict for the press in CPJ’s history and perhaps ever.

“The vast majority of victims in Iraq were local journalists and militants and criminal groups are responsible for most of the killings. Ironically, the Internet helped make the world more dangerous for reporters because militant groups discovered an alternative method for communicating with their followers. They didn’t need the media–they spoke with them directly, through the Internet. Journalists, who were once useful to even the baddest and the meanest were suddenly expendable. Worse, if your message was terror, killing a journalist was an excellent way to spread fear. This was the logic of the Danny Pearl killing. But while the action of these militant groups have made international reporters more vulnerable, it is important to note that the vast majority of journalists killed around the world are local reporters, murdered in their own countries.

“Sadly, the U.S military has also contributed to the death toll of journalists. Sixteen journalists have been killed by U.S. military forces in Iraq. We do not believe that these killings were deliberate, but we do believe many could have been avoided. Most have never been properly investigated.

“In terms of imprisonment, the numbers are also alarming. The number of journalists in prison around the world skyrocketed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, jumping from 81 to 137, as repressive countries around the world launched opportunistic crackdowns often appropriating the language of the war on terror to justify these repressive measures. While the world’s leading jailer of journalists are China, Cuba, and Eritrea, it is important to note the United States has appeared on CPJ’s annual lost of imprisoned journalists every year since 2001. At least a dozen journalists were held in U.S. military custody in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for extended periods of time without due process. One is still being held by the U.S. military in Iraq – a freelance photographer for Reuters named Ibrahim Jassam.

“In letter sent in January, CPJ Chairman Paul Steiger asked then President-elect Obama to reaffirm our nation’s leadership as a staunch defender of press freedom by pledging to end the open-ended detention of journalists and by investigating the death of any journalist by U.S. forces fire. We have followed up this request in meetings with the State Department and the Pentagon because we believe that not only that these polices will protect the work of journalists in conflict zones but also because we believe, as Sen. Lugar himself noted, “The example of press freedom we set in this country is an important beacon to guide other nations as they make the transition from autocratic forms of government.” In this regard, I commend the efforts of the Press Freedom Caucus in helping to move the Federal Shield Law (or the Free Flow of Information Act) through the House. We look forward to passage in the Senate. 

“Taking aggressive action to remedy the blots on the U.S. press freedom record is urgent because the full moral authority and engagement of the United States is needed to counter an extremely disturbing global trend – the mounting counteroffensive against online journalists around the world who have used the Internet to circumvent state controls. The Utopian notion that the Internet is impossible to censor or control has been superseded by a new reality: according to the latest CPJ census of imprisoned journalists online reporters now represent the largest group behind bars, surpassing print journalists for the first time. Twenty-four of the 28 journalists in prison in China worked online. In order to highlight the growing threat to freedom of expression online, CPJ will release … a new study pegged to World Press Freedom Day highlighting the Ten Worst Places to be a Blogger.

“But the news is not all bad–far from it. For the first time in a nearly a decade, the number of journalists in jail and killed declined in 2008. The decrease in violence in Iraq was the primary reason, but the number of journalists in jail around the world also dropped modestly as a handful of journalist were released from jails in Cuba.

“There are, right now, tremendous opportunities for constructive advocacy and, working together, we can help drive the numbers down. CPJ has launched has two major campaigns to do so.

“The first is our campaign against impunity, which is supported by the Knight Foundation. We are focusing initially on two countries with an unremitting record of violence against the press – Russia and the Philippines. Working with press groups and journalists in both countries we are highlighting the failure of governments to bring the killers of journalists to justice. In order to measure progress we have developed a new tool, CPJ’s Impunity Index. Not surprisingly countries like Iraq, Somalia and Sierra Leone top the Index, which measures the number of unsolved killings of journalists per one million inhabitants. What is surprising is that most of the countries on the list are democracies that are not at war–countries like Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, and even India. We believe strong and consistent pressure on offending governments can bring progress, progress which we hope to measure when we release the 2010 Impunity Index next spring.

“We are also launching this year a systematic campaign to reduce the number of journalists in jail around the world. While the numbers of journalists in jail is alarmingly high, the fact is that only a handful of countries around the world systematically jail journalists and they are among the most repressive. China, Cuba, Eritrea, Burma and Uzbekistan are the worst offenders. While China continues to lead the world in the jailing of reporters, print and broadcast reporters are rarely thrown in jail. Online reporters face the greatest risk. We are seeking not only to put pressure on the Chinese government, but we are working with Internet companies to develop mechanisms that will make easier to stand up to pressure from repressive governments. We are also focusing on Cuba and asking that as President Obama pursues an opening with Havana the fate of the 21 journalists currently in jail on the island is firmly on the agenda.

“In my remarks, I have focused mostly on the risks to local journalists working in their own countries. This is right because it is these journalists who are most often the victims of abuses and persecution. All of us in the United States also owe them an enormous debt of gratitude–whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or even Mexico, these are the front line reporters who bring us our news.

“But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the U.S. reporters who are in our thoughts right now. I am speaking about Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the Current TV reporters currently detained in North Korea, and of course Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who was recently sentenced to eight years prison sentence on charges of espionage. She filed her appeal on Saturday and is currently on hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

“On the surface, Roxana’s unjust and cruel incarceration on trumped-up charges seems to fly in the face of the positive trends I am suggesting here today. I am deeply concerned for her welfare. But at the same time I am deeply encouraged by the international response from media organizations, journalists around the world, as well as concerned governments.

“Such concerted international action is what is needed every time press freedom is challenged. This is the best strategy for ensuring that the historic arc of press freedom returns soon to its rightful and upward course.”