The international journalists' organization Reporters Without Borders is circulating what it calls an "Impunity Blacklist" of countries where it says newspeople are abducted, murdered, and tortured, and where their assailants routinely go free. The 21 places listed include Russia, Iraq, Iran, the UN-supervised Serbian province of Kosovo, Tajikistan, and Ukraine.
Prague, 5 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A journalists' watchdog group says in a new report that 21 countries in the world lead all others as places where criminals and government agents can, with impunity, threaten, abduct, kill, or torture journalists.
The Damocles Network said that these 21 places include Russia, Iraq, Iran, the UN-supervised Serbian province of Kosovo, Tajikistan, and Ukraine.
The Damocles Network is a new offshoot of the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Spokesperson Jean-Christophe Menet described the network as the press watchdog group's judicial extension. "It's our judicial arm, I would say...We used to protest against countries that did not protect freedom of the press. But we decided that there has to be some judicial actions when journalists are murdered, and when the cases are not investigated seriously," Menet said.
Menet said the Damocles Network is ambitious in scope. "The network it refers to is a network of lawyers, of magistrates, of investigators, of contacts in many countries that Damocles is going to use to [try to] ensure that the investigations are carried out successfully," Menet said.
In announcing its "Impunity Blacklist," Reporters Without Borders and its Damocles Network say that five journalists were murdered in Russia in 2001 and that a sixth, Vladimir Kirsanov of the independent "Kurganskie vesti," disappeared. The organizations say their own investigation into the Kirsanov case demonstrated, among other shortcomings, that Russian authorities failed to devote sufficient resources to solving the crime.
RFE/RL correspondents sought without success today to elicit comment from Russian authorities.
The impunity blacklist also cites the Heorhiy Gongadze case in Ukraine, in which the editor in chief of an investigative online website disappeared. His decapitated body was discovered in November 2000. Reporters Without Borders says the Prosecutor's Office and the Ukrainian Interior Ministry have "blocked any serious investigation."
In Kosovo, the blacklist report says that the international peacekeeping force administering the province has yet to "adopt the basic measures that will bring an end to the impunity still enjoyed by enemies of freedom of the press."
Susan Manuel, chief spokesperson for UNMIK -- the United Nations Mission in Kosovo -- does not entirely disagree. "First of all, the problem that they [Reporters Without Borders and Damocles] point out about witness intimidation applies to every violent-crime case here and not specifically to journalists," Manuel said.
Manuel said that UNMIK has conferred with journalists and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe about how to better protect journalists, and is slowly bringing about improvements in the Kosovar judicial system. "But it's not a great place for journalism. Threats do inhibit the performance, particularly of Kosovo-Albanian journalists here. I don't know what kind of law could reverse that because this is a problem across the board of the society. Witnesses are threatened. Judges are threatened. This is not a specific problem for journalists, although I agree that journalists cannot do certain kinds of reporting. They cannot name certain people. They are afraid. They have received threats," Manuel said.
Menet of Reporters Without Borders said "That's right, but, you know, in a country like this, where violence is such a commonplace [occurrence] between the communities, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, is a condition for the future of democracy."
Including Tajikistan on its impunity blacklist, Reporters Without Borders asks, "Whatever has become of the investigations into the murder of the 32 journalists killed since 1992, including 18 who, without a doubt, were murdered because of their political opinions or of their work?"
Okil Sultonkulov, spokesman for the Tajik Prosecutor's Office, reached in Dushanbe, told RFE/RL that investigators have open files on 40 to 50 murders, most committed during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war.
Earlier this week, Mamad Mirzoev, head of the Tajik Interior Ministry's organized-crime department, told our Dushanbe bureau that Tajik President Imomali Rakhmomov has ordered that efforts be redoubled to solve the open murder cases of prominent people. "In any case, we must find who killed these people, why, and who ordered the murders, and we must find clear evidence and the perpetrators should be punished," Mirzoev said.
Despite its conclusions about Kosovo, the impunity report says the situation in Serbia proper has markedly improved since the government began cooperating with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. It lists Serbia along with eight other countries, including Georgia and Turkey, where it believes "impunity is a way of life," but which are showing signs that deliberate steps are being taken to improve press freedoms.
"One encouraging sign is that a Belgrade court found the former general director of Radio-Television Serbia, Dragoljub Milanovic, guilty of the deaths of 16 station employees, who were killed when one of the office buildings was bombed by NATO on 23 April 1999," the report read.
Milanovic was sentenced to a 10-year prison term for having failed to inform his employees of imminent strikes on the building by the NATO alliance during the Kosovo conflict.
It also lists Afghanistan as a country that has "decided to confront the problem head-on and find a solution." It notes that President Hamid Karzai's government approved last month the creation of a Human Rights Commission whose principal mission is to look into past violations.
"This step," the report concludes, "induces us to hope that those who murdered 10 journalists between 1992 and 2002 will not go unpunished."
(Reporters Without Borders can be found on the Internet at www.rsf.org; the Damocles Network at www.damocles.org.)