From the Editor’s Keyboard

2005 Annual Report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

By  | 3 November 2005 at 13:54 | 1834 views

RSF is one of those international organizations that need no introduction. Here is its take on what happened to journalists worldwide as 2005 draws to a close.

An urgent campaign

Family and colleagues suffered four months of anguish, waiting and disappointed hopes after the kidnapping of French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot and their guide Mohammed al-Jundi in Iraq on 20 August 2004. No journalists had been kidnapped for that long since French photographer Brice Fleutiaux was held by an armed group in Chechnya for eight months in 1999-2000. But the determined support for them paid off and a few days before Christmas, their kidnappers gave them a gift they never expected and freed them, to spend the holidays safely with their families. Reporters Without Borders had never seen such worldwide support for journalists. All heads of state and political and religious leaders with influence in the Arab world called for their release. Even groups of armed extremists who had attacked civilians joined the call to free them. But the happy outcome must not hide the grim reality that press freedom is having a hard time. It’s being attacked, trampled on, disdained or ignored everywhere in the world.

A year of mourning

53 journalists were killed while doing their job or for expressing their opinions in 2004, the most since 1995 at the height of attacks by Islamic radicals in Algeria that killed more than 50 journalists in less than two years. Iraq remains the world’s most dangerous place for the media, with 19 journalists killed there in 2004 and more than a dozen kidnapped. One kidnapping ended in the execution of Italian reporter Enzo Baldoni by the "Islamic Army in Iraq" on 26 August.

Italians loudly accused their government of not doing all it could to save him. Should it have given in to the kidnappers’ demands to pull Italian troops out of Iraq ? Was the extremists’ deadline taken seriously enough by the Italian government ? A parliamentary commission will answer these questions in 2005. Iraq was not the only minefield for journalists. Sixteen were killed in Asia in 2004, nearly all because of their opinions. Exposing corrupt politicians or investigating organised crime proved fatal for journalists in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

On the other side of the world, in the Americas, violence against journalists increased as druglords and corrupt political elites objected to their activities being exposed by the media. Journalists were killed in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru.

The murder in Gambia of Deyda Hydara, the local Reporters Without Borders correspondent (the first one to be killed in the organisation’s 20-year history), was a reminder that Africa is still liable to unpredictable violence. A fact-finding mission was sent at once to monitor the police enquiry and make its own investigation into the killing, which seemed to be the work of the regime. Hydara was a tireless independent journalist who boldly and impartially denounced abuses of power in his country.

The solid wall of impunity that human rights defenders face all over the world showed a few cracks in 2004 and the killers of some journalists were called to account. In Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines and elsewhere, they were convicted or at least arrested and charged. This was very far from being enough but it was a step on the road towards punishing those who think justice means forgetting or means allegiance to the authorities, as in Burkina Faso and Belarus, for example.

Silence ! Go to jail !

Killing a journalist is not the only way to silence the dissident voices that jar in the ears of dictators. 107 journalists were in prison around the world on 1 January 2005. Long-standing tyrannies are blocking all democratic progress in Asia, where China remains the world’s biggest prison for journalists, with 26 detained.

But China’s economic opening-up to the outside world should benefit freedom of expression. A few media outlets try to buck censorship and mention forbidden topics, but repression is getting worse and they are quickly punished for stepping out of line. Journalists have been in prison for several years in Burma and Vietnam. The release of well-known poet Raúl Rivero and six other journalists in Cuba in 2004 was good news, but two years after the March 2003 wave of dissident arrests, the country is one of the few in the world where news is a state monopoly. 22 journalists are still in prison there.

The worst rubs off on the best

The worst are a handful of countries whose inhabitants are suffocated by crude, ridiculous but very powerful propaganda, led by North Korea, where there is no recognisable "journalism." The staff of the regime’s media work in fear, glorifying the achievements of the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong-il, and risk being sent to a "re-education" camp just for spelling errors.

In Turkmenistan, a medieval-style state ruled by a "president-for-life" more concerned with building statues of himself than allowing his subjects to enjoy press freedom, the few journalists who dare to work for the foreign media, often secretly, are routinely threatened and physically attacked. All independent media in Eritrea, an arid state that won independence by armed force in 1993, have been shut down since 2001. Their editors and staff are in prison and foreign correspondents are not allowed to stay in the country.

At the other end of the spectrum are democratic governments in Europe, North America, Asia and Australasia, where very few if any topics are off-limits, where no journalists are in jail, where the state does not excessively interfere. Yet worrying attacks on freedom of expression occurred there in 2004. Several journalists in the United States were being prosecuted for refusing to reveal their sources to courts. Some even risk going to prison or being held under house arrest, all new in a country where the national constitution says people do not have to testify against themselves.

The confidentially of sources was also attacked by the judiciary in France through formal questioning of journalists, legal summonses and raids on journalists’ homes and offices. Parliament also approved a law creating new press offences punishable with imprisonment. The move contrasted with a trend among some not very democratic governments, especially in Africa, to decriminalise press offences.

20 years of fighting for press freedom

Reporters Without Borders will be 20 years old in 2005, a good moment to sum up. Sadly, judging by the number of journalists killed, imprisoned or physically attacked in 2004, our fight is more important than ever.

Press freedom is not guaranteed everywhere in the world. As some lights of free expression are lit, others are extinguished. Things are improving in Haiti and Ukraine, but worsening in Algeria and Pakistan. Newspapers are flourishing in the streets of Kabul and being burned on street corners in Abidjan.

Reporters Without Borders will keep on protesting, exposing and condemning these situations, but will also give help to journalists and media outlets that need it. We made about 100 financial assistance grants in 2004, as in previous years, to pay lawyers’ fees, offer shelter to exiled journalists, pay the rent for suspended media, re-equip ransacked offices and meet other needs.

These efforts won’t change the world overnight, but they fight the erosion of press freedom and resist the abuses of authoritarian regimes. It’s not enough. But it’s a vital task.

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

Introduction Africa - Annual Report 2005
Continent of hope and death

Press freedom too often remains just a frustrated hope in Africa. Journalists pay with their blood or their freedom for the despotism that continues in some countries. Censorship and intimidation are weapons still widely used by governments. Death threats are common. Self-censorship is widespread and taken for granted. And hate media have even resurfaced.

It was a year of mourning for Reporters Without Borders. Its correspondent in Gambia, Deyda Hydara, was shot dead by gunmen on the night of 16 December. It was the first time one of the organization’s correspondents has been murdered. He was the co-editor of The Point and the local correspondent of Agence France-Presse (AFP). He was also one of the most widely-read government critics and was read within the government, whose young president has never hidden his contempt for independent newspapers.

Free expression’s grey zones

A third year of silence and fear came and went in Eritrea. The last foreign correspondent left the country and the 14 journalists who were imprisoned in 2001 continued to be held in a secret location, without trial. But the international community did not seem too concerned.
In Zimbabwe, the Daily News tried everything to reappear. In vain. President Robert Mugabe’s regime again found a way to get new, draconian laws passed by a submissive parliament.
In Côte d’Ivoire, journalists often doubled as combatants or ended up prison or had to go underground. In a country torn by hate, they became enmeshed in political violence. Guy-André Kieffer, a French-Canadian journalist who was investigating corruption in the cocoa trade, disappeared in April. A correspondent for the progovernment daily Le Courrier d’Abidjan was fatally injured during violent clashes between French peacekeepers and Ivorian troops and civilians in November. In a media world aswirl with public condemnation and calumny, a few journalists tried with difficulty to keep their heads. A year after the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) convicted some of those who had been running RadioTélévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM) at the time of the genocide, part of the Ivorian press was playing a dangerous game, prompting the UN to voice concern about a reappearance of "hate media."
The large number of privately-owned media in the Democratic Republic of Congo did not suffice to mask the often dangerous amateurism with which some of them worked. Congolese journalists are still too often the victims of a culture of despotism and violence even in times of peace. When the war resumed the press suffered like other civilians.

The repressive reflexes of aging regimes

The plight of press freedom may be less dramatic but just as worrying under aging regimes. In Omar Bongo’s Gabon, Paul Biya’s Cameroon, in Lesotho and in Mauritania, the authorities used their police, their army and their easily swayed judiciary to express their irritation with the media.
In Paul Kagame’s Rwanda, the state did not stop prosecuting the only really critical newspaper and its journalists were followed by government agents. In this country that was so tragically scarred by hate media in the past, press freedom is virtually inexistent.
Opposition journalists were often thrown into jail in Sudan under repressive laws that permit inordinately long periods of preventive custody.
Even if the independent press including the satirical press was allowed a little leeway, Lansana Conté’s Guinea still harassed some independent journalists and often censored newspapers that irked a strict and inflexible National Council of Communication. In Equatorial Guinea, the powerful pro-government press constantly attacked the weak opposition, if need be, exploiting racial prejudices.
In Swaziland, a poor little kingdom ruled by an eccentric young king, the staff of the state media had to sing the regime’s praises on pain of dismissal.
The situation was paradoxical in Tanzania, where a reasonable degree of respect for press freedom on the mainland contrasted with the behaviour of the authoritarian government running the semi-autonomous island of Zanzibar, which never stopped trying to throttle the weekly Dira, the island’s only independent newspaper, until it was finally forced to close.
Zanzibar has parallels with Seychelles where the opposition weekly Regar was often assailed by the judiciary, and with Djibouti where the weekly Le Renouveau was constantly harassed by the government. In Madagascar, the overlapping of politics and news media is a source of problems and court actions against certain opposition radio stations continued to cast a shadow over an otherwise relatively free climate.

Four years in prison under the UN’s eyes

In countries such as Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo-Brazzaville, Zambia and Lesotho, incidents involving the media are often the repressive outbursts of fragile regimes that cannot stand criticism. Or a feature of societies subject to social violence such as Kenya. One of the worst press freedom violations took place in a country in full democratic transition, under the eyes of a local UN mission that was supposed to be promoting human rights. This was in Sierra Leone in October, when a leading journalist, Paul Kamara was sentenced to four years in prison for libel after being sued by the president.
All this chaos should not obscure the fact that Africa also has democracies that are relatively stable despite their poverty. In South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, for example, press freedom is comparable to what prevails in European countries. In Benin, Cape Verde and Mali, the governments show their journalists some respect and no significant violation was registered in 2004. An end to fighting between rebels and government and a transition process brought a marked improvement in the situation of journalists in both Burundi and Liberia, although tension endured. And the situation continued to improve steadily in Angola after years of devastating civil war.
There has been a clear trend in recent years for African countries to fall into line with modern democracies and decriminalize press offences. The Central African Republic did it under strong pressure from its journalists, a few months after Togo did it under strong European Union pressure at a time when independent journalists who criticised Gen. Eyadema’s government were subject to repeated death threats. Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade promised it for 2004 after a leading journalist was imprisoned during the summer, sparking outcry in the press.

Impunity for Norbert Zongo’s killers

Ending impunity for the killers of journalists is fundamental, and countries that bring those responsible for political crimes to justice derive obvious benefits in terms of stability and confidence in their governments. The trial of Carlos Cardoso’s killers in Mozambique have begun to heal the wounds of a badly-scarred society.
Unfortunately this was not the case in Burkina Faso where, six years after Norbert Zongo’s murder, the judicial system’s inexplicable paralysis keeps suspicion hanging over President Blaise Compaoré and his associates.
Despite police violence, political instability and judicial excesses, some African journalists continue to do honour to their profession. In dismembered Somalia, for example, where businessmen, militias and Islamic courts have constituted the sole authority for 13 years, several privately-owned radio stations and newspapers continue to inform the public and maintain the links of common language and social life that unite a population otherwise abandoned to itself and anarchy. In Nigeria, a vigorous, insolent and courageous independent press confronts the feared federal police, clan battles and extreme violence that corrupt its society.
It is a challenge to be a journalist in Africa. The profession has risks, including the risk of sinking into irresponsibility. Those who have not yielded are all the more commendable and courageous.

Reporters Without Borders defends imprisoned journalists and press freedom throughout the world. It has nine national sections (Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland). It has representatives in Abidjan, Bangkok, London, Moscow, New York, Tokyo and Washington. And it has more than 120 correspondents worldwide.

Photo credit: RSF