Daniel Pearl Act would shine light on overlooked abuses

This week CPJ congratulated the House sponsors of a bill that would expand the breadth and depth of the State Department’s annual reporting to Congress on press freedom abuses worldwide. The Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act passed the House last month; now the bill is being redrafted for the Senate by the Committee on Foreign Relations. CPJ, in the July 8 letter to Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Mick Pence (R-IN), who are also co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press, urged the Senate to pass the legislation appropriately named after the late Wall Street Journal reporter.

Pearl’s abduction and murder more than seven years ago chilled the most hardened foreign correspondents. But even an act that hideous is not the only one of its kind. No less than four months later a senior TV Globo correspondent in Brazil, Tim Lopes, was abducted as he was investigating criminal activities in a shantytown, or favela, in Rio de Janiero. Committing a series of offenses that may well have been intended to echo Pearl’s Pakistani-based execution, Lopes’ captors gave the Brazilian journalist a mock trial and sentenced him to death, before beheading him with a sword and burying his burned body parts in a clandestine cemetery.

The murders of these two highly respected journalists are hardly rare. At least 532 journalists have been murdered in direct reprisal for their reporting since 1992, according to figures compiled by CPJ. This number excludes journalists killed by stepping on a landmine, or being shot in a conflict zone, or being blown up in a suicide bombing.  In fact, for every journalist killed during the heat of armed combat, unlike what many Hollywood films might suggest, nearly three journalists are murdered in cold blood. Only six of the journalists murdered worldwide since 1992 have been U.S. citizens like Pearl. The overwhelming majority–490 of them–have been local journalists who were murdered while pursuing stories within their own nations.

Many people have heard of the Russian investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya who was murdered in her Moscow apartment building in 2006. But how many people have heard of, say, Uma Singh, a Nepalese radio reporter and women’s rights activist who was stabbed to death this year in January by about 15 unidentified assailants in her home, or of Eliseo Barrón Hernández, a Mexican newspaperman who was beaten by hooded gunmen in May in front of his family before being abducted to have his tortured corpse discovered the next day, or of Mukhtar Mohamed Hirabe, a Somali radio reporter who was shot repeatedly in the head last month by unknown gunmen as he and a colleague, who was also wounded, were walking to work.

Moreover the murderers get away with it in nearly nine out of 10 cases; CPJ’s latest impunity figure for journalist murders since 1992 is 88.7 percent. Another great threat to journalists worldwide, as CPJ noted this week in the letter to Reps. Schiff and Pence, is the common incarceration of journalists for doing their jobs: No fewer than 125 journalists were in prison around the world as of December 1, 2008. Nearly half of those imprisoned are online journalists; they are now detained more often than journalists working in any other medium.  China, Cuba, Burma, Eritrea, and Uzbekistan were the top five jailers among the 29 nations that imprison journalists.

Unfortunately, the United States remains on the list. CPJ has challenged the U.S. military’s open-ended detention of journalists and media workers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. In January, CPJ sent a letter to Obama asking him to abolish “the practice of detaining journalists for prolonged periods without due process [to] send a clear signal that the United States upholds its longstanding commitment to free expression. “

China just finally dropped from the top of the list after a 10-year stretch as the world’s worst jailer of journalists. Not because China has released all 28 journalists it was holding in jail at CPJ’s last count in December 2008. But because Iran, in the wake of the crackdown on election results last month, has recently jailed dozens of journalists including 30, according to CPJ’s count this week, who remain behind bars. The tiny nation of Eritrea on the African Horn has the dishonorable distinction of being the world’s worst per capita jailer of journalists with 13 incarcerated (all of whom, like other dissidents there, have been held incommunicado for nearly eight years) in a nation of fewer than 6 million people.

The Daniel Pearl Act would compel the State Department to cover all kinds of press freedom abuses “including direct physical attacks, imprisonment, indirect sources of pressure, and censorship by governments, military, intelligence, or police forces, criminal groups, or armed extremist or rebel groups.” But the act would further require Foggy Bottom to explain “what steps the government of each such country has taken to preserve the safety and independence of the media, and to ensure the prosecution of those individuals who attack or murder journalists.”

That would be a step forward, indeed. The Daniel Pearl Act passed the House as part of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee may hold hearings on the legislation before the August recess, according to CPJ sources, and bring the act to the Senate floor later this year.