"2006 was the worst year on record – a year of targeting, brutality and continued impunity in the killing of journalists." - Aidan White, General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
Journalists are often "easy targets" in wars. While most civilians in a
dangerous situation turn the other way and try to get to safety,
journalists do the exact opposite. The job of a journalist is to
report, which often means that -- as most people are fleeing danger --
journalists pass them on the road heading towards the fighting.
It’s easy to forget that journalists are nevertheless civilians.
Foolhardy, even reckless at times, perhaps, but still civilians due the
same protections under international law as any other civilians.
When journalists are deliberately shot, blown up, taken hostage, or
imprisoned for simply doing their jobs, that's a crime. When these
violations against journalists are committed in an armed conflict, they
constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions – they are war
2006 was a year in which killings of reporters and media staff reached
historic levels with at least 155 murders, assassinations and
unexplained deaths, according to the IFJ. On 23 December, the UN
Security Council adopted a resolution in which it condemned intentional
attacks against journalists, media professionals and associated
personnel in situations of armed conflict and called upon all parties
to put an end to such practices.
However, around the world, whether in war or in peace, too few states
take their obligations seriously. In situations of open conflict, such
as in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than offering protection from the
serious dangers journalists face, the authorities restrict their
ability to report freely.
Freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. A free press is an essential component of
freedom of expression and is equally important as a key player in the
protection of all human rights. All of society pays the price when
journalists are killed with impunity and censorship and fear stifle
expression. These are the conditions under which abuse of power and
injustice will thrive.
In Iraq, at least 64 journalists and media workers were reported killed
in 2006, bringing the total to at least 139 since the March 2003
invasion of Iraq. A few were killed by US troops and Iraqi forces while
covering fighting between these troops and insurgents, but the majority
were killed by armed groups opposed to the government and the presence
of foreign troops, or militiamen men belonging to Shi'a religious
On 22 February, Atwar Bahgat, a correspondent with the TV channel
al-‘Arabiya, and her colleagues Khaled Mahmoud al-Falahi and ‘Adnan
Khairallah, were kidnapped. Their bodies were found the next day near
Samarra. On 26 March 2006, a freelance journalist, Kamal Manahi Anbar,
was killed by Iraqi forces’ fire during a clash with insurgents. The
shooting took place near a Shi'a mosque in Baghdad’s Ur district.
Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. military, were reported to have opened
fire after several shots were fired from a building adjacent to the
mosque. Civilians rushed for cover, among them Anbar, who was found
shot several times in the face and neck.
On 12 October, masked gunmen killed 11 people and wounded two at the
Baghdad office of the satellite TV channel Al-Shaâ’abiya in Zayouna
district in East Baghdad.
In Afghanistan, the deteriorating security situation has made
intimidation, harassment and violence an everyday reality for Afghan
journalists and human rights defenders. Afghan journalist Ajmal
Naqshbandi was abducted in March along with an Italian reporter,
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, and their Afghan driver, Sayed Agha. While
Daniele Mastrogiacomo was released in a prisoner exchange, Ajmal
Naqshbandi and Sayed Agha were killed by their captors.
The government and newly established parliament have made attempts to
limit reporting that would reflect badly on Afghan government and the
legislature. For example, the National Security Directorate, the Afghan
intelligence service, issued a decree on 18 June 2006, attempting to
limit reporting about the declining security situation. The Afghan
government and parliament have since late 2006 been discussing revising
a media law that would seriously undermine freedom of speech and media
It's not just in situations of open conflict where journalists are at
risk. In Mexico, for example, at least 11 journalists have been
murdered since the start of 2006 and a number of others have been
abducted. Journalists reporting on corruption and the activities of
organized criminal networks are particularly at risk.
The state has acknowledged the increasing attacks on journalists around
the country and the failure of authorities to hold those responsible to
account, but, despite the establishment of the Office of Special
Prosecutor on Crimes against Journalists (Fiscalía Especial para la
Atención de Delitos Cometidos contra Periodistas) in February 2006,
there is total impunity for such crimes.
Journalists are often seen as an irritation – they publish stories that
embarrass governments, they give coverage to the opposition and to
campaigners, they expose human rights violations and other abuses of
power. While individual journalists themselves might not be dissidents,
the fact that they write about dissent and the issues that cause
dissent makes them targets of governments who want to suppress that
In Russia, where the murder of human rights journalist Anna
Politkovskaya placed a spotlight on press freedom in that country,
reporting on human rights violations and dissent is at best difficult
and often be dangerous. Journalists who have covered the recent
"Dissenter's marches" have been detained and several newspapers have
received warnings for publishing information about opposition movements
and giving voice to dissenting opinions. One human rights organization
has been closed for publishing non-violent statements by
representatives of Chechen separatist leaders.
Intelligence services in Nigeria have raided media outlets, stopping
programmes, requisitioning tapes, intimidating, arresting or beating up
journalists too critical of the government and the President. In the
run-up of the elections of April, at least two journalists lost their
lives in the widespread political violence. In the context of the mass
protests of May Day 2007, organized to protest against the
irregularities during the elections, local media have reported that a
cameraman was beaten into a coma by the police, who also threatened
other journalists with their guns. In another incident, 15 journalists
were reported to have been rescued from an attempted lynching by a
group of party supporters.
In Cuba, working for an unofficial news agency can also cause problems,
as Pablo Pacheco found in March 2003. After a period of apparent
movement towards a more open and permissive approach, the authorities
carried out an unprecedented crackdown on the dissident movement on the
island. Pacheco, who works for an agency called Avileña Co-operative of
Independent Journalists (Co-operativa Avileña de Periodistas
Independientes) was one of 75 people sentenced during this period. He
was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment and remains in prison. Pablo
Pacheco is one of 13 imprisoned Cuban journalists who are recognized as
prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
Media workers in Zimbabwe live in constant fear of arrest, torture and
death for reporting the on going human rights crisis in Zimbabwe. Gift
Phiri, a journalist who was arrested in Harare on 1 April 2007 and
detained for four days, was severely beaten while in police custody.
Another journalist, Edward Chikomba was abducted from his home on 31
March 2007 and killed. His body was found two days later with bruises
suggesting that he had been severely assaulted by his abductors.
Media workers who have been critical of government policies have been
targeted in the past through repressive laws such as the Access to
Information and Protection of Privacy Act, enacted in 2002, which was
used by the government to shut down privately owned newspapers and deny
journalists registration to practise.
Journalists are often unjustly accused of ordinary crimes in order to
persecute them for their work. Sakit Zahidov, a well-known opposition
journalist in Azerbaijan, was imprisoned on charges of possessing
illegal drugs – charges Amnesty International calls "questionable".
Noting that he didn't receive a fair trial, the organization fears that
he may have been imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising his right
to freedom of expression.
For journalists in some countries mere contact with the outside world
can have serious repercussions. Iranian journalist Ali Farahbakhsh was
arrested on 27 November 2006 after returning from an NGO-sponsored
conference in Bangkok on government and the media. A Revolutionary
Court in Tehran is reported to have sentenced him to three years’
imprisonment and a fine of about US$71,000 on 26 March 2007 on charges
of espionage and "receiving money from foreigners" in connection with
his participation at the conference.
In possibly the most well known case worldwide, Chinese journalist Shi
Tao was arrested in 2004 for sending an email to a foreign website and
charged with "illegally divulging state secrets abroad". The email
described a briefing that he and other journalists had received from
the Chinese Communist Party's Propaganda Department on how they should
report anniversary commemorations of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He
was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment in 2005 following an unfair
trial. Amnesty International has adopted Shi Tao as a prisoner of
In recent months, the Chinese authorities have sought to further
tighten controls over the internet. This has been followed by further
censoring of certain websites, blogs and online articles. For example,
a website providing news broadcasts over the internet, www.ccztv.com,
was closed down in March.
Journalists caught up in conflict and lawlessness
Sometimes journalists are targeted just because of who they are and not
because of what they say or write. Alan Johnston, the BBC journalist
abducted by Palestinian gunmen on 12 March 2007, has become a symbol of
the dangers journalists face in conflict areas. Though he is well liked
and respected in Gaza, Alan was seemingly abducted just because he was
a high profile foreigner. Since his abduction, foreign journalists are
no longer going to Gaza and the humanitarian crisis there has dropped
off the world news agenda.
The Security Council resolution shows that there is growing global
recognition of a serious problem in the way journalists are treated
around the world. What is needed now is global action to protect
journalists and protect the freedom of the press.