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World: Analysis From Washington - A Most Dangerous Profession

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 21 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty-two journalists and other media professionals were killed this year for uncovering corruption and opposing authoritarian regimes, the tip of the iceberg of violence against reporters that has made their profession one of the most dangerous lines of work.

While the number of journalists killed this year in fact declined from the record 86 in 1999, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said this week, the real situation has actually deteriorated. Last year's count included 36 killed during civil wars, many of whom may have died while doing their jobs but not because of what they wrote or broadcast. This year, the IFJ said, only five journalists were killed in such conflict zones.

As a result, virtually all the journalists killed this year were singled out for assassination by those who did not want them to get the story out. Indeed, IFJ general secretary Aidan White, whose organization represents 420,000 media staff across the globe, said that "in every corner of the world, journalists have paid a terrible price in the struggle for democracy."

The ICJ report said that Columbia has been the most dangerous country for journalists in 2000 where 11 have been killed already this year. But it noted as well that eight journalists have been killed in Russia this year, including three in the Chechen conflict zone. And it highlighted the case of Sergei Novikov, the owner of a Smolensk radio station who had drawn fire because of his criticism of the activities of local political elites.

As dramatic and distressing as these deaths are, they represent only a small part of the kind of activities both official and unofficial in many countries which are becoming a virtual counterrevolution against journalists who try to report accurately about those in power.

One country which has attracted particular concern in this regard is the Russian Federation. Earlier hopes that it would move quickly toward a genuinely free media have been dashed, with people as diverse as former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) to suggest this week that many of the gains of the last decade may be about to be lost.

In a 15 December letter to President Vladimir Putin, the World Press Freedom Committee's chairman, James H. Ottaway Jr., appealed to the Russian leader to end government harassment of independent media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky, and ecology reporter Grigor Pasko and RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky.

These three cases, Ottaway said, have "a common thread in that each one involves a decision by official prosecutors to continue the legal harassment of someone who is prominent in the world of journalism." And in each case, "at some point, a court has already found the accused not guilty of official charges. Yet prosecutors and courts insist on retrying them on the same or closely related charges."

Such actions, the WPFC head (Ottaway) concluded, mean that "the situation in Russia is as bad or worse than ever for a free press," something he argued will entail "inevitable long-term consequences for the acceptance of Russia into the community of free and democratic countries, as well as being harmful to the efforts to reform Russian society and the State which should serve it."

Russia is far from the only post-communist country where journalism and journalists are at risk and where as a result democracy and freedom are under threat as well. Journalists have been killed or are missing in Belarus, Ukraine and many other places as well. In some of these countries, officials have revived Soviet-era methods of denying paper, electric power or access to those who report things that officials want ignored or used the police power of the state even more directly.

In other places, officials have employed "market-oriented" solutions, driving some broadcasters and newspapers into bankruptcy either by selective prosecution of tax evasion, discouraging advertisers, or subsidizing only those outlets which hew to the official line.

But what is striking is that in virtually all of these countries journalists continue to try to report the news. The murder of 62 of their colleagues this year is an indication of the odds against them. At the same time, these deaths are an inspiration, an unintended testimonial by their opponents of the importance and power of free media in countries making the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

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