Attacks on the Press 2009: Introduction

By Joel Simon

Does “name and shame” still work in the Internet age? After all, the massacre of 31 journalists and media workers in the Philippines pushed the 2009 media death toll to the highest level ever recorded by CPJ. The number of journalists in prison also rose, fueled by the fierce crackdown in Iran.


Main Index
In African hot spots,
journalists forced
into exile

In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters

As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Europe and
Central Asia

Why a killing in Chechnya
is an international issue

Middle East
and North Africa

Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback

For more than three decades, the strategy of “name and shame” has been a hallmark of the international human rights movement. The guiding premise is that even the most brutal leaders want to hide—or at least justify—their repressive actions. If abuses could be exposed through meticulously documented reports, and if those reports could generate coverage in major international media outlets, governments would be compelled to curb their most egregious behavior.

The strategy worked exceptionally well from the 1970s through the 1990s, when foreign correspondents functioned as information gatekeepers, broadly shaping perceptions about events in a particular country. This was a time when a single editorial in a major publication like The New York Times or The Washington Post could mobilize public opinion and produce a shift in policy. Those days are over.

Today’s fragmented and diffuse media landscape has opened new opportunities for advocacy campaigns, ones that unite local and international concerns, ones that use blogs, e-mail blasts, and social media to shape public opinion. With the power of traditional media diminished, getting your message out is a painstaking process that demands the use of multiple methods. This is true whether you are running a political campaign, marketing a movie, or fighting for the human rights of journalists working in repressive countries.

The good news is that these new strategies are effective, even in places you would not expect. Governments, including the most recalcitrant and repressive, still respond to international pressure.  


Take Iran, which saw one of the most vicious and widespread crackdowns on the press in recent memory. More than 90 journalists were rounded up to suppress dissent in the aftermath of the disputed June presidential election. When CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1, Iran still held 23 writers and editors, a figure second only to China. It could have been even worse.

The hard-line leadership that coalesced around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recognized that it would pay a high price in terms of international opinion for its violent and brutal tactics, which is precisely why it shut down the foreign press corps in Tehran, expelling journalists and seeking to confine the remainder to their bureaus. Iran’s leaders viewed the media as part of an international conspiracy to discredit the election and overthrow the regime. Jailing journalists was part of this paranoid fantasy.

But not all factions in Iran saw the situation the same way. There are elements within the Iranian government that care deeply about what the world—or at least a part of it—thinks of the regime. The government supports a sophisticated English-language television network, Press TV, which targets the global intelligentsia and serves as an instrument in the war of ideas with the West.

By raising the visibility of imprisoned journalists in Iran through e-mail alerts, media interviews, Facebook petitions, blog posts, and a variety of other means, CPJ provided Iranians who care about the erosion of their country’s international reputation with arguments to push back against hard-line elements. How this interplay works is difficult to discern, but there is no doubt that international pressure played a role in the release of high-profile journalists such as Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari and freelancer Roxana Saberi. 

Similar public campaigns led to the release of imprisoned journalists in countries as diverse as Burma, which freed three reporters as part of an amnesty of political detainees, and the Gambia, where the country’s autocratic and thin-skinned leader pardoned six journalists who had been convicted on baseless charges of sedition. All told, CPJ advocacy contributed to the release of 45 imprisoned journalists in 2009.

Press freedom defenders are speaking to more audiences and using a greater range of tactics than ever before. That means working collaboratively with domestic press groups and targeting specific messages to local and international audiences. In the Gambia, an assertive local press union took the lead in generating public outrage at home, while CPJ blog posts, tweets, and e-mail alerts helped prompt a flurry of condemnations on Africa-focused Web sites and public appeals from U.S. and British officials.

Even in the Philippines, which suffered the deadliest event for the press that CPJ has ever recorded, these new strategies have made inroads.

CPJ, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has been carrying out a campaign against impunity in the Philippines in partnership with local groups. In March 2009, to mark the fourth anniversary of the killing of renowned Philippine investigative reporter Marlene Garcia-Esperat, CPJ traveled to Manila to release its second annual Impunity Index, a global ranking of countries that fail to bring the killers of journalists to justice. 

The Philippines ranked worst among peacetime democracies, trailing only war-ridden places such as Iraq and Somalia. The office of President Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal fired back at the time, calling CPJ’s findings “an exaggeration.” The November 23 massacre in Maguindanao province demonstrated tragically that the failure of Philippine authorities to confront the culture of impunity has grave consequences. The political clan members accused of carrying out the killings believed—with justification—that they could get away with it.  

But thanks to Philippine press advocates, there is now widespread awareness of the government’s failures—and widespread revulsion. Within days of the killings, Philippine journalists and media groups came together to travel to the scene of the massacre, provide assistance to victims’ families, carry out an independent investigation, and produce a well-documented report that was widely distributed online. Within weeks, a global delegation from the International Federation of Journalists, CPJ, and other groups was on the ground to support the local efforts.

The cost of failing to address impunity should be evident not only to the other countries on CPJ’s Impunity Index—nations such as Russia, Mexico, and Pakistan—but to their international partners as well. In September, a CPJ delegation traveled to Moscow and Brussels to present Anatomy of Injustice, our in-depth examination of unsolved journalist killings in Russia. In Moscow, we made the case directly to top investigators and other officials; in Brussels, we met with European Union officials to press the point that this is their problem as well. Russian investigators invited CPJ to return in 2010 to assess their progress. We will be there.  


The tragedies of 2009 only make our challenge more clear. Creating vibrant and secure global media requires new strategic thinking to bring killers to justice, to reduce the number of journalists in jail, and to support reporters working in exile or in repressive environments. On all of these fronts, there has been progress.

In Cuba, a lively community of independent bloggers is emerging despite some of the world’s most repressive censorship laws. In Zimbabwe, many of the same journalists who were forced into exile in the early part of the decade are again disseminating news to Zimbabweans on the airwaves, in print, and online.

In China, the number of journalists in jail has declined from a high of 42 in 2004 to 24 today. Traditional journalists who expose corruption are more likely now to be fired than to be hauled off to jail. But questioning the Communist system remains off-limits: Most of the journalists in jail in China today are online freelancers who do just that. Defending these opinion journalists is a huge test.

At a time when technology is changing the way people around the world gather and receive information, when international news organization are cutting back and closing bureaus, freelancers, local reporters, and online journalists are more important than ever. The press critic A.J. Liebling once quipped, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” In today’s world, that’s just about everyone. While the rights of each journalist are protected by international law, few have large media organizations that can stand behind them. Instead, their safety and security depends on the ability of press freedom organizations to generate public attention and mobilize action.

Protestations from repressive governments about “foreign meddling” and “secret agendas” are evidence that our campaigns are having the intended effect. The revolution in global information has created new challenges, but “name and shame” is alive and well.


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