Press Freedom Day, 3 May, has, for a number of years, been a day in which journalists and media workers marked the deaths of increasing numbers of their colleagues around the world. This year, though, there is some relief from the unrelenting bad news.
The International Federation of Journalists annual report of journalists and other media workers killed in 2008 noted a significant drop from a record high of 172 killed in 2007 to 109 killed in 2008. In Iraq, which has been the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist since 2003, 16 were killed in 2008 compared with 65 in 2007. (See note on figures)
However, this decline in number is cold comfort to those who have seen their colleagues killed, imprisoned and attacked. The death toll may be decreasing, but press freedom around the world has continued to come under persistent attack.
One possible reason for the decline (in the number of journalists killed) is the increasing tendency of governments to deny journalists access to conflict zones. In three recent conflicts – Gaza, Sri Lanka and Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan – the Israeli, Sri Lankan and Pakistani governments respectively have worked to prevent journalists from gaining access.
Elsewhere, individual journalists face a wide range of problems preventing them from doing their jobs. From direct attacks by the authorities and others to the use of libel laws, journalists face often insurmountable obstacles to fulfilling the tasks that are so necessary for the defence of human rights.
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.
Attacks on journalists around the world:Azerbaijan – Emin Hüseynov
Emin Hüseynov, director of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, was hospitalized in June 2008 with head and neck pains. He is reported to have been severely beaten by police after objecting to being photographed and having his fingerprints taken after a raid on an event in Baku commemorating Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara.
Official investigators visiting Emin Hüseynov are reported to have attributed his condition to a “neurasthenic reaction” or “self-harm”. On 17 June 2008, he was moved from the emergency ward of Baku’s Centralized Emergency Medical Assistance Hospital to the neurological department for continued treatment.
Brazil – Katia Camargo
Investigative journalist Luiz Carlos Barbon, who had reported on official corruption, was murdered in May 2007. Local military police officers have been arrested and are awaiting trial for his murder. His wife, Katia Camargo, is being threatened by people linked to her husband’s killers, some of whom are still at liberty.
Brazilian journalists, especially those who report on official corruption or criminal activity, continue to face threats and attacks, sometimes lethal.
China – Tan Zuoren
Tan Zuoren was arrested by the police in Chengdu city, Sichuan on Saturday 28 March. An environmental activist and writer, he is currently detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. He is now held at Wenjiang Detention Centre, and may be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment.
Local sources have said that they believe Tan Zuoren’s detention is linked to his intention to issue public materials on the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake.
These materials include a list of children who died during the earthquake on 12 May 2008, along with an independent report on the collapse of many school buildings due to faulty construction.
In the wake of the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese authorities initially allowed unprecedented and widely praised reporting freedoms in the quake zone. However, they later restricted foreign journalists, barring them from entry or escorting them out of towns in the affected areas.
The Egyptian Press Law and other provisions in the Penal Code criminalize legitimate reporting, while criminal defamation charges are used to harass journalists and prevent their reporting on matters of clear public interest.
In the recent months, there has been an increase in the number of Egyptian internet activists and bloggers arrested and detained because of their non-violent activities, which were considered by the authorities to be critical of the government and its policies.
Haiti – Jean Dominique
On 3 April 2000, Jean Dominique was shot dead by an unknown assailant in front of the offices of his radio station, Radio Haïti Inter, in Port-au-Prince. The station’s guard, Jean-Claude Louissaint, was killed at the same time.
The murders caused dismay in Haiti, especially because Jean Dominique was a well-respected figure who had been speaking out openly in favour of democracy for four decades. His killing was a serious blow to freedom of expression in Haiti. Nine years on, the alleged culprits have not been brought to justice.
Russia – Anna Politkovskaya
In February 2009, a Moscow military district court acquitted all those charged with involvement in the murder of human rights journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Anna Politkovskaya was murdered on 7 October 2006 in Moscow. She had faced intimidation and harassment from Russian authorities, including the authorities in Chechnya, due to her outspoken criticism of government policy and action.
Anna Stavitskaia, one of the representatives of the children of Anna Politkovskaya, noted after the trial that the investigation had been weak and that the defence of the accused had been much stronger.
A prominent human rights lawyer who had worked with Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the centre of Moscow in January. Stanislav Markelov had been preparing to appeal against the early release of a Russian former colonel sentenced for the murder of a Chechen girl. Anastasia Baburova, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta, the same newspaper Anna Politkovskaya worked for, died from wounds sustained in the same attack.
Journalists in Somalia continue to face targeted killing, death threats, arbitrary detention and intimidation by all parties to the conflict. There were some 30 detentions of Somali journalists (lasting between four and 115 days), and journalists suffered more than 30 death threats, two killings and several injuries in 2008, with no means of bringing perpetrators to justice. Since the beginning of 2009, there have been several attacks and killings
Nur Muse Hussein of Radio Holy Quran was shot in the leg in Beletweyne on 20 April 2009 when he was covering fighting between the local government and armed militia in the area. Hassan Bulhan Ali, Director of Radio Abudwaq, was knifed five times in the abdomen by a single attacker in Galgadud on 7 February 2009 at a clan reconciliation meeting.
Three men with pistols killed Said Tahlil Ahmed, Director of HornAfrik in Mogadishu, when they shot him four times in the head at Bakara Market in Mogadishu on 4 February 2009. He was on his way with other media directors to a meeting with local al-Shabab.
Hassan Mayow Hassan, with Radio Shabelle, was shot twice in the head after being stopped at a roadblock by a local government-affiliated militia and died in Afgooye on 1 January 2009 on his way to cover armed conflict in the area.
Sri Lanka – Lasantha Wickramatunga
Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, was shot on Thursday 8 January 2009 by unidentified gunmen while travelling in Mount Lavinia, Colombo. Mr Wickramatunga was rushed to Kalubowila hospital where he died.
The Sunday Leader has carried a number of articles exposing political interference and corruption in privatisation deals. Sunday Leader commentators have also drawn attention to human rights abuses in the context of intensified fighting. There are no signs of any investigation that has led to the arrest and prosecution of those believed responsible for the killing of journalists and other media workers.
Journalist JS Tissainayagam (usually known as “Tissa”) was detained at the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) detention centre in the capital, Colombo, on 7 March 2008, on suspicion of links to the armed opposition group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers (he is an ethnic Tamil).
Tissa is best known for his weekly column, The Telescope, in the independent English-language Sunday Times newspaper. From 2002 to mid-2007 he was the editor of a current affairs magazine, the North Eastern Monthly, which covered events in the areas of the country most affected by fighting between the government and the LTTE. In his writing, he has been critical of the failure of successive governments to protect the human rights of Tamils. Tissa was denied bail for the fourth time at a 13 January 2009 hearing.
At least 14 media workers have been unlawfully killed in Sri Lanka since the beginning of 2006. Others have been arbitrarily detained, tortured and allegedly disappeared while in the custody of security forces. More than 20 journalists have left the country in response to death threats.
April, nine individuals who were accused of carrying out in 2006 the murder of Mohamed Taha, a journalist and chief editor of a Sudanese newspaper, were executed. Amnesty International considered that the nine defendants could have been innocent, as their trial did not meet international standards of fairness and their confessions were extracted under torture.
The executions were carried out immediately following the confirmation by the Constitutional courts of the death sentences.
A clampdown by the security services on the press and journalists was the most severe since 2005, when the Interim National Constitution was adopted as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement’s implementation, putting in place provisions to safeguard freedom of expression and freedom of the press.
The reintroduction of censorship measures against privately owned newspapers began in February 2008. At the time, many local newspapers had reported on links between the Sudanese government and Chadian opposition groups that attacked the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. In retaliation, representatives of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) resumed a daily inspection of newspapers offices and printing houses.
The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attack on Omdurman in May led to a further tightening of restrictions on the press. Journalists were widely targeted by the NISS; while some were intimidated and harassed, others were arrested and detained, especially in the aftermath of the attack.
Al Ghali Yahya Shegifat, a journalist and president of the Association of Darfur Journalists, was arrested by the NISS in the aftermath of the JEM attack. He was held in incommunicado detention for more than two months, during which he was continuously tortured. He was not given access to a lawyer and his family was not allowed to visit him or even informed of his whereabouts. He was not charged with any offence.
Tunisia – Fahem Boukadous
Fahem Boukadous, a journalist working for al-Hiwar Ettounsi, a Tunisian television channel, was charged with “belonging to a criminal association” and “spreading information liable to disrupt public order” because of his legitimate reporting on the human rights violations committed by the security forces during the social protests in the Gafsa region in 2008.
He went into hiding and was tried in his absence on 12 December together with 37 others and sentenced to six years in prison. His sentence was upheld in appeal in February 2009. He is still in hiding and is said to be suffering from acute breathing problems.
The Tunisian government has maintained tight restrictions on the media and several journalists were prosecuted on account of their professional activities, often on seemingly unrelated charges.
A note on figures: The Committee to Protect Journalists gives the number of journalists killed in 2008 as 41, 11 of those in Iraq; Reporters sans frontières gives the number of journalists killed in 2008 as 60 and one media assistant, with 15 journalists killed in Iraq.