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World: Press Watchdog Says Work Became Harder For Journalists In 2002

  • Don Hill

Reporters sans frontieres (RSF), or Reporters Without Borders, says in a world roundup report of threats to press freedom that the number of journalists killed for their work was lower in 2002 than in previous years. The press watchdog group says, however, that the number of journalists who were attacked, threatened, or jailed rose dramatically. The group told RFE/RL that the international war on terror is one source of the increased hazards for news reporters.

Prague, 7 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The press freedom watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in a new report on press freedom that the number of arrests, physical attacks, and threats against journalists soared in 2002.

Regis Bourgeat, who is RSF's specialist for Asia and who compiled the overall report, said deaths in the line of duty were down but that threats and imprisonments were up. "And what we see this year [2002] is that the number of journalists who have been killed for their articles has been less than last year, but the number of journalists who have been attacked and the number of media outlets who were censored during 2002 is really higher than [in] 2001."

Specifically, the report says that 692 journalists worldwide were known to have been arrested for their work in 2002. The comparable figure for 2001 was 489. It says that 1,420 news people were physically attacked or threatened on the job last year. In 2001, the number was 716. By RSF's count, 25 reporters were killed last year, down from 31 in 2001.

Bourgeat attributes the increased threats to journalists and interference with their work to greater worldwide unrest and conflict. He cites the war on terror in the United States, Russia's battle against Chechen separatists, and the heating up of the Pakistan-India confrontation as examples.

The RSF report says good news came from places where repression previously had been severe. "Peace agreements and political reforms last year in Angola, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka noticeably increased press freedom." "And thanks to the [Afghan Transitional Authority President] Hamid Karzai administration, many newspapers have been allowed to be published. And private radios -- international radios -- are now broadcasting very easily in Afghanistan," Bourgeat added.

RSF says, for example that the weekly "Khilid" is available in 28 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces and usually sells almost all of its 17,000 press run. The group says, however, that press freedom drops off sharply the farther one gets from the capital, Kabul.

The RSF report also cites concern over what it calls a decline in press freedom in democracies such as Italy and the United States. Challenged for specifics on the U.S. decline, however, RSF researchers came up short. Bourgeat spoke of a growing lack of openness in the United States, but, he said, the power of the U.S. press so far has held off any actual suppression.

RSF's specialist for Europe, Soria Blatman, said the greatest limitations on press freedom in Europe occurred in Russia. "We saw, for example, after the hostage-taking episode in Moscow that Russian media have been punished for their coverage of this episode and, generally speaking, all matters regarding Chechnya."

The RSF report cites an incident in November in which Russian state-security police seized the central computer of the weekly "Versia" because of its coverage of the special-forces action to free hostages held by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater the previous month. More than 120 hostages died when Russian forces used an opiate-based gas to incapacitate the hostage takers. Russian authorities, backed by a new antiterrorism law, have clamped down sharply on press criticism and coverage of that incident.

The RSF roundup says that Asia remains the most dangerous continent for journalists, with 11 killed last year. It also says that as the year ended, at least 118 journalists were in prison around the world because of their opinions or their work. And that at least 700 were detained during the year for various lengths of time -- including one in Portugal and another in the United States -- for refusing to identify confidential sources.

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