by Ann Cooper

Twenty journalists were killed because of their work in 2002, the lowest number since the Committee to Protect Journalists began recording the annual death toll in 1985.

One factor that set 2002 apart was an easing of conflict in some key regions. A year earlier, for example, 37 journalists were killed—eight of them while covering the war in Afghanistan. The relative quiet there, and the movement in 2002 toward peace in Sri Lanka, Angola, and elsewhere, reduced some of the risk faced by local journalists and foreign correspondents who cover violent conflicts. The West Bank was a dramatic exception; three journalists there were killed by gunfire from Israel Defense Forces, and several more were wounded.

But war is only one threat to journalists. Most of the 20 who died in 2002 were targeted in direct reprisal for their work, by Colombia’s paramilitaries, by corrupt local officials in the Philippines, and by others who would silence journalists through intimidation and murder. At year’s end, most of the killers in these 20 cases had not been brought to justice—a record of impunity that threatens press freedom worldwide.

For the second year in a row, the number of journalists in prison rose sharply. There were 139 journalists in jail at the end of 2002, a 15 percent increase from 2001 and a shocking 68 percent increase since the end of 2000, when only 81 journalists were imprisoned. For the fourth year in row, the world’s leading jailer of journalists was China, which held 39 in prison; five of them were jailed in 2002. In Eritrea, where the government shut down the private press a week after the September 11, 2001, attacks, 18 journalists were in jail. In Nepal, where 16 journalists were incarcerated, the government justified its repressive actions as a necessary response to threats posed by “terrorist” Maoist rebels.

Until September 11, 2001, the number of journalists in prison had been on a downward trend—from 129 in 1997, to 118 in 1998, to 87 in 1999, and to a low of 81 at the end of 2000. Strong pressure from international organizations, the media, and governments worldwide, including the United States, was probably responsible for the decline. Countries that routinely jailed journalists were ostracized and often isolated. However, Nepal and Eritrea, both of which began their crackdowns on the press in late 2001, have largely escaped international criticism. Certainly, the stigma associated with jailing a journalist has faded.

International pressure, however, may have played a role in securing the early release of one of these imprisoned journalists at the beginning of 2003. Russian journalist Grigory Pasko was paroled for good behavior on January 23, after serving two-thirds of his four-year treason sentence. Pasko, who had been reporting for the Russian military newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta (Battle Watch) on environmental damage caused by the Russian navy, had been convicted of “treason in the form of espionage” for “intending” to give classified documents to Japanese news outlets. CPJ had campaigned intensely for Pasko’s release.

Imprisonment is the most severe tactic routinely used by governments to suppress critical reporting. In hundreds of other cases, all documented in this book, journalists were assaulted, censored, harassed, or threatened, just for doing their jobs.

They were targeted for writing about government malfeasance: Irina Petrushova, editor of a business newspaper in Kazakhstan, was sent a funeral wreath and then a decapitated dog to discourage her from investigating financial corruption in the president’s administration.

They were targeted for exposing the crime webs of ruthless drug lords: Television investigative reporter Tim Lopes of Brazil used a hidden camera to film the sexual exploitation of minors in a Rio de Janeiro slum but was caught by the slum’s drug gang, beaten, executed with a sword, and burned.

They were targeted while working to expose the many threads of international terrorism: Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, expecting to meet with the leader of a radical Islamic group in Pakistan, instead was kidnapped, accused of spying, killed, and his dismembered corpse was dumped in a shallow grave. His captors circulated the videotape of the beheading widely through the Internet to recruit others to take up arms against the United States and its allies.

Subsequent arrests and trials may lead to justice in the killings of Lopes and Pearl. Another murder trial, this one involving the grisly 2000 assassination of Mozambique’s top investigative reporter, Carlos Cardoso, caused a sensation in 2002 with accusations of high-level plotting that even pointed a finger at the president’s son. On January 31, 2003, a judge sentenced six men to lengthy prison terms for murdering Cardoso and vowed to push for a more thorough investigation into the crime.

But in most other cases, official investigations of journalists’ murders are halfhearted or nonexistent. Two witnesses to the May 2002 murder of Edgar Damalerio, an editor and radio commentator in the Philippines, identified a local police officer as the killer, but officials have not yet charged him. (As this book was going to press, a judge in the Philippines ordered the officer’s arrest.) Impunity is so standard in the Philippines, Colombia, and Russia that journalists there are resigned to losing several of their colleagues each year. Two died in the Philippines in 2002, while three Colombian journalists were murdered because of their work, and another three were killed in Russia.

And that’s in addition to the three who were killed by Israeli gunfire in the West Bank, where foreign and local correspondents who covered that conflict—in particular Israel’s March military offensive in the West Bank—reported that Israel Defense Forces fired at them despite the fact that they were clearly identified as journalists. Israel also detained several Palestinian journalists, holding three of them for several months before releasing them without charge. The attacks and arrests by Israel, along with pressures from the Palestinian National Authority, put the West Bank at the top of CPJ’s list of the "10 Worst Places to Be a Journalist."

Israeli officials frequently justified their actions as necessary for national security. So did Russian authorities when they cracked down on the media during and after the October hostage crisis in which Chechen rebels seized a Moscow theater where some 700 people were attending a musical. The Russian government threatened or took action against the press for interviewing hostage-takers, publishing a photograph of a woman killed by the Chechens, and posting on the Web an interview with anguished relatives of some of the hostages. After security forces used a narcotic gas and stormed the theater—killing all the rebels and more than 120 civilians—the government became impatient with media outlets that questioned whether the death toll could have been kept lower. In November, protests by Russian journalists and international press freedom advocates managed to head off a set of amendments that would have fixed draconian new limits on media coverage of terrorism and terrorist activities, but journalists expect the government to continue debating restrictions in 2003.

The clear message, from both Israeli and Russian officials, was that in certain conflicts the media have little right to information, to the access they need to cover events, and little justification for questioning government actions. Such arguments have grown increasingly common, with political leaders in many parts of the world adopting the rhetoric of fighting terrorism to stifle independent reporting and opposition voices.

U.S. president George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism,” launched in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, gave impetus to the argument. Though the Bush administration has moved away from its strong warnings against the perils of dissent, other leaders wrap their repression in the anti-terrorism argument, even sometimes describing critical journalists as “terrorists.”

The war on terrorism encourages repression of the media in another way. The United States, for example, has muted its criticism of human rights and press freedom abuses in countries that are strategically important to its military efforts, such as the states of Central Asia.

Eritrea has also gone largely uncriticized, despite a harsh crackdown in late 2001 that closed all independent media outlets and imprisoned 18 journalists. Several U.S. officials visited the country in 2002, in search of a possible site for an American Army base to be used for military action against Iraq. On one such visit in December, U.S. secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked about Eritrea’s abysmal press freedom record. Eritrea, he answered, “is a sovereign nation, and they arrange themselves and deal with their problems in ways that they feel are appropriate to them.”

That message left little hope that international pressure might push Eritrean president Isaias Afewerki to ease his ban on the private media—or even acknowledge where he has imprisoned journalists and opposition figures who are being held incommunicado.

No journalist’s case drew as much international attention in 2002 as the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl. In the wake of Pearl’s death, journalist safety became a renewed priority for news organizations, particularly those in Europe and the United States that have substantial foreign reporting staffs and budgets to deploy them to conflicts all over the world. Many purchased bulletproof vests and sent their correspondents to hostile-environment training, usually week-long courses run by former military personnel to sensitize journalists to the risks they could face in a conflict zone.

The prospect of U.S. military action against Iraq prompted a new round of training, this time to prepare journalists for possible biological or chemical warfare. And the U.S. military offered “boot camp” courses to dozens of correspondents who could be “embedded” with American troops in the event of an invasion of Iraq.

As news organizations budgeted millions of dollars and negotiated with the U.S. military for access to the battlefield in the possible new conflict, a host of questions arose, among them: Would the Pentagon censor reports from the field, and how would U.S. troops regard free-lance journalists who were not accredited to travel with them? Along with journalist safety, press freedom in the potential new conflict zone was certain to be a top priority for journalists in 2003.

Ann Cooper is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before joining CPJ in 1998, she was a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio for nine years, serving as bureau chief in Moscow and Johannesburg.