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World: Watchdog Says Press Freedoms Eroding

  • Don Hill

The World Association of Newspapers -- known as the WAN -- says that 10 more journalists have died while working this year worldwide than in all of 2003. It said that press freedoms are under assault at what it calls "an alarming rate," especially in Iraq, China, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. WAN told RFE/RL that deaths of journalists in Iraq make news reporting perilous there, but that reporting is even more dangerous elsewhere.

Prague, 23 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Paris-based WAN says in its new report that the last half of 2004 has been disastrous for journalists and for freedom of expression generally.

The WAN said that 35 journalists around the world were killed at work in the last six months. That makes 63 so far this year, 10 more than for the whole of 2003.

In its "Press Freedom World Review: June-November 2004," the WAN said that the Philippines and Iraq stand out as the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist. By the WAN's count, eight journalists have been killed in the Philippines since June.

The WAN said that in Iraq almost every work assignment for journalists means risking one's life. The report said that insurgent actions constitute the primary cause of death for journalists and fire from U.S. forces the second. Seven journalists have died there in the last six months. The death count is 35 since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The WAN said that almost half of those were Iraqis. Another 11 drivers, interpreters, and guides have been killed there so far this year.

Kajsa Tornroth, the WAN's press-freedom director, said she thinks the world is becoming inured to violence in general and to attacks on journalists in particular.

"I think that violence has become a part of our everyday life and it takes more to make people react to acts of violence than it did five or 10 years ago," Tornroth said.

She said too many autocratic governments contribute to extending this climate of violence -- especially to journalists.

"Especially with regard to the culture of impunity, I think that many, many governments are sending out very worrying signals to people in not trying to punish the murderers of journalists," Tornroth said.

She said this growing callousness translates into an unspoken acceptance of attacks on journalists.

"I think that over the years people who would like to attack or kill journalists have simply learned that this is something you can do and get away with," Tornroth said. "I think that it's a thing that's been happening over a long period of year and now we're facing a situation where the numbers have just become drastic and we're facing a completely intolerable situation."

The WAN said in its report that China is distinguished for "its brutal stance toward all forms of criticism by media or human rights activists." It said that more than 40 journalists and Internet dissidents are known to be in prison there. In the past two months, it said, authorities have shut down two publications.

In Russia, the WAN said, journalists are harassed, intimidated, and pressured. The report discusses at length journalistic efforts to cover the 1-3 September attack against a school in Beslan in southern Russia that left more than 330 hostages dead. It says that officials detained or otherwise hindered a number of journalists seeking to report on Beslan. And it reported a charge that one reporter might have been poisoned.

As WAN put it, "there is an ongoing culture of impunity" in Russia toward the murders of journalists. This means that killers of editors and reporters seldom are found and prosecuted. Two celebrated slayings in the last half of 2004 were those of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine and Payl Peloyan, editor in chief of a Russian-language arts magazine.

In Eastern Europe, the WAN report points particularly at Belarus and Ukraine. It calls the situation in Belarus "dire." The WAN said that the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka uses libel lawsuits, financial pressures, closures and suspensions, and intimidation to silence critics.

The report said that Lukashenka continues to be guided by an attitude he expressed over Belarusian television in June 2003: "Pressure is currently being put on Belarus through weapons of mass destruction. There is no other name for them. That is the mass media. The mass media are weapons of mass destruction today, the most powerful ones."

It said that conditions in Ukraine -- especially those of radio and television -- deteriorated especially leading up to the October election. The WAN also said that the government continues to resist an open investigation into the death four years ago of investigative reporter and editor Heorhiy Gongadze.

The report said that in Central Asia, a leading violator of freedom of expression is Uzbekistan, where the government, in WAN's words, "continues its systematic harassment of the independent press."

(WAN's "Press Freedom World Review: June-November 2004" is available at http:/