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East: Journalists' Group Spotlights Press 'Enemies'

  • Kevin Foley

Each year, the press freedom monitor Committee to Protect Journalists, selects ten world leaders it believes have done the most harm to freedom of the press and places them on its "Enemies of the Press" list. This year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the list, along with authoritarian rulers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. RFE/RL correspondent K.P. Foley reports.

Washington, 3 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A U.S.-based human rights organization contends that Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma are among the world's ten worst abusers of press freedom.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) included the three leaders on the "Enemies of the Press" list that it issues each year in advance of the 3 May marking of World Press Freedom Day, an observance begun in 1991 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Ann Cooper, executive director of CPJ, said the purpose of the list of press foes is to "focus world attention on their deeds and, by exposing them, bring about change."

Cooper said that, "whether sly or blatant, the goal of each of these leaders is to hold on to political power by controlling information and muffling criticism."

Iran's spiritual leader is at the very top of the enemies list. Cooper told RFE/RL on 2 May that his placement was deliberate.

"Ayatollah Khamenei is number one this year from Iran. He was also on the list last year. We believe he deserves the number-one slot because through his pronouncements essentially what had been a very vibrant reformist press has been shut down."

Khamenei was blamed for instigating what CPJ called a relentless campaign against a free press. Khamenei, said Cooper, "has shuttered the country's vibrant reformist press by closing dozens of newspapers and jailing outspoken journalists."

Putin, who took office in the spring of 2000, is on the list for the first time. Cooper said Putin declares his respect for press freedom, "but then maneuvers in the shadows to centralize control of the media, stifle criticism, and destroy the independent press."

"Well, we've seen since Putin became president just a very serious deterioration in press freedom across Russia. There is more centralized control of the media, censorship in Chechnya, organized legal harassment against private media outlets, the most dramatic example, obviously, being Media-MOST and the takeover by the state-dominated Gazprom media recently of NTV."

Kuchma had been on the list for the year 1999. CPJ returned him this year, accusing him of increasing, "its habitual censorship of opposition newspapers," and for increasing attacks and threats against independent journalists. The CPJ said the disappearance and presumed murder of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze brought the plight of Ukrainian journalists into sharp focus.

Cooper again called on the Kuchma government to resolve the case.

"We believe that the government of Leonid Kuchma certainly should be doing everything it possibly can and very vigorously to get to the bottom of this deep mystery."

In addition to Khamenei, Putin, and Kuchma, the CPJ's list included:

Liberian President Charles Taylor; Chinese President Jiang Zemin; Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe; Carlos Castano, leader of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia; Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader, who has been named to the list seven times; Tunisian President Zine al-abdine Ben Ali; and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathis Mohamad.

Cooper said the list is a subjective ranking. She said there are always more candidates than places on the list, but names are included only after a thorough discussion.

CPJ's mission is to advocate press freedom around the world and to fight for the rights of journalists, especially those under pressure.

At the State Department Wednesday, spokesman Philip Reeker said:

"In far too many lands, journalism remains a very dangerous occupation. Those who dare to confront tyranny, investigate corruption, and report on the abuse of power are often met with violence, intimidation, and even death."

Reeker made the comment at the daily news briefing to mark Press Freedom Day in the world.

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