Accessibility links

Media Matters: February 17, 2006

17 February 2006, Volume 6, Number 3
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says Iraq has become the deadliest conflict for journalists to cover in nearly a quarter-century. In all, 61 journalists have died while covering the Iraq conflict, more than 75 percent of them Iraqis. That total is higher than the 58 newspeople killed reporting on the Algerian civil war of 1993 to 1996 -- the previous most deadly conflict since the CPJ began keeping records 24 years ago.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has just released its annual review of threats faced by the media worldwide. The report, "Attacks on the Press 2005," says Iraq has now become the deadliest conflict for reporters since the 24-year-old media advocacy group began keeping its records.

The CPJ says 22 reporters were killed in Iraq last year. Of those killed, three-quarters were Iraqis. Another journalist has already been killed this year. The groups says that most of the deaths were from insurgent attacks. Other journalists were targeted for death by assassinations.

Radio Free Iraq's Baghdad bureau chief Moayed al-Haidari says the report confirmed what Iraqi journalists have long known. While international press attention is usually on foreign journalists who are killed or kidnapped, it is Iraqi newspeople who face the greatest pressures. He said that pressure is aimed at silencing a free press that extremist groups in the Iraqi conflict perceive as dangerous to their interests.

"Here in Baghdad, I think, everybody knows that it is maybe the most dangerous place in the world," al-Haidari said. "But it is doubly or triply dangerous for journalists because some people here can't understand your aim and your skills. Some people are afraid of you because they think you are an enemy to them. Some people have it in mind that all the media are dangerous to them, especially the extremist parties."

Al-Haidari also said that while foreign news organizations may spend large amounts on trying to assure the security of reporters that are rotated frequently in and out of Iraq, local media have to try to protect themselves as best they can.

"My day begins with being worried from the morning. I check my gate of my house, I have to check the street, I have to be careful, maybe there is somebody waiting for me, to shoot me. And I always have to be worried, even when I drive my car or a driver drives me to the bureau or to the location of an interview, I have to always be alert. I have to be afraid of kidnapping and killing," al-Haidari said.

He said kidnappings, both as a prelude to assassination or to demand ransom, are a constant danger. "Two weeks ago, two people working for a local Iraqi television channel were kidnapped and until now I have been following their case and there is no news but we are waiting to find their bodies or to get a message from the kidnappers asking for money," al-Haidari said.

According to the CPJ report, such emotions are familiar to journalists working in many other quieter parts of the world, as well. The report notes that, worldwide, "murder" is the leading cause of work-related deaths among journalists. Usually, the killers go unpunished. In 2005, the CPJ says, 90 percent of the killings "were carried out with impunity."

The CPJ also notes that independent media remain subject to pressure in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, and this pressure is often exerted in the name of state security. The media advocacy group places some of the blame for that trend on Washington.

CPJ researcher Alex Lupis writes that "the [U.S.] administration's antiterrorism agenda has made it easier for the region's resourceful authoritarian leaders to justify repressive media policies in the name of security." The CPJ notes that in Uzbekistan "the massacre of citizens by government troops [in Andijon] was followed by a brutal press crackdown."

Looking worldwide, the media advocacy group found a total of 125 journalists were imprisoned by 24 countries for their work, an increase from last year. The CPJ found that four countries held most of the imprisoned journalists. They are China, with 32 newspeople in jail, Cuba, with 24, Eritrea with 15, and Ethiopia with 13.

The independent group faulted the United States for jailing a prominent reporter, Judith Miller, in 2005 for 85 days for contempt of court. "The New York Times" reporter was jailed for refusing to reveal the name of a source within the government who spoke to her in connection with a scandal over the leaking of the name of a CIA operative to the press.

Paul Steiger, who is chairman of the CPJ and managing editor of "The Wall Street Journal," warns that "repressive governments are delighted when a democracy like the United States imprisons a journalist. It makes it easier for them to justify their own restrictive policies."

By Claire Bigg

Authorities in the southern Russian city of Volgograd announced on 17 February that they are shutting down the publisher of a local newspaper, "Gorodskiye vesti" (City News) for publishing a cartoon on 9 February depicting Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and the Prophet Muhammad. The decision came in response to a complaint lodged with the local prosecutor's office by the regional branch of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which called the drawing offensive. Many, however, say the cartoon was harmless and accuse Volgograd's Unified Russia branch of staging a publicity stunt.

Volgograd acting Mayor Andrei Doronin told a news conference on 17 February that the closure of Volgograd-Inform, the city-owned publisher of "Gorodskiye vesti," was intended to prevent incitement of religious hatred and halt what he called "abuse of media freedom."

Sergei Vovchenko, a Unified Russia spokesman in Volgograd, told RFE/RL that the party decided to take action after receiving hundreds of calls complaining about the cartoon. He insisted that the party had no political motives for filing the complaint and was not responsible for the countrywide scandal it had triggered.

"Several parties and social organizations in Volgograd simply expressed doubts about this publication," Vovchenko said. "This is why a request was sent to the prosecutor's office. We simply wanted to make sure the legislation was being respected. No news sensation was created around this; others created it. We did not seek to stir up any scandal; on the contrary. On the second day of these events, on 10 February, a press conference about these events was canceled."

The federal prosecutor's office was quick to react to Unified Russia's complaint. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said on 15 February that investigators had been sent from his office to Volgograd to determine whether the newspaper was guilty of inciting religious hatred. He said in televised remarks that free speech was no excuse for insulting the feeling of religious believers.

"Gorodskiye vesti" published the cartoon on 9 February as an illustration to an article titled "Racists Have No Room In The Government." It shows Jesus Christ, Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad watching on television two groups of people about to engage in a fistfight. The caption, representing the thoughts of the assembled religious figures, reads: "We did not teach you that."

Recent weeks have seen violent demonstrations across the Arab and Muslim world to protest the recent publications in European newspapers of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The drawings -- one of which represents Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban -- were first published in Denmark in September.

The editor in chief of "Gorodskiye vesti," Tatyana Kaminskaya, said, however, the cartoon published in her newspaper was a call for peace and could not have caused offense. None of Volgograd's religious communities, she said, has complained about it.

Many observers have reacted with dismay at Unified Russia's denunciation of the cartoon and at the subsequent crackdown on "Gorodskiye vesti." Mikhail Melnikov, an analyst at the Center of Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, sees nothing offensive in the cartoon -- on the contrary.

"What do they [prosecutors] want to investigate? I really don't know," Melnikov said. "The caption in this drawing is very noble: 'let's live in peace.' This drawing is not a caricature, it's a highly artistic work, and many agree with me on this. I think that the Unified Russia party is meddling. I don't see anything rational here, it is some kind of small-town fight for influence."

Igor Yakovenko, the deputy head of the Russian Union of Journalists, called the closure of the newspaper a "disgrace for Russia" and accused federal authorities of pressuring the Volgograd administration into shutting it down.

The position of the Volgograd city administration has been ambiguous. Speaking to RFE/RL, Volgograd Deputy Mayor Konstantin Kalachyov defended the cartoon and joined the chorus of accusations against Unified Russia's regional branch.

"The nature of the drawing is peaceful and positive," Kalachyov said. "All the rest is political insinuation, and it seems to me that the scandal has been whipped up out of nothing. In my opinion, people's feelings are much more insulted by things such as the control of documents on the basis of non-Slavic appearance. The publication could have gone totally unnoticed had Volgograd's Unified Russia not stirred up a scandal."

Kalachyov, however, said acting Mayor Doronin believed that the newspaper had to be shut down because it had acquired a "scandalous reputation."

So what might have prompted Unified Russia in Volgograd to whip up such a scandal? Some observers have suggested that the attack on "Gorodskiye vesti" may have been a result of infighting between the Volgograd branch of Unified Russia and the city administration, which owns the newspaper.

But Andrei Serenko, a journalist based in Volgograd, dismissed this theory. According to him, relations between the party and the mayor's office, although once rocky, have recently been on the mend. Volgograd's Unified Russia, he said, simply hoped to boost its plummeting regional ratings.

"In Volgograd, this party has been very steadily losing popularity over the past year," Serenko said. "According to Volgograd's sociologists, who are constantly carrying out polls in the region, Unified Russia is consistently losing about 1 [percentage point] every month in Volgograd. So Unified Russia started whipping up this story which, in the eyes of its PR specialist, fitted in the information context: 'Now all the media are talking about this cartoon scandal [in Denmark], so let's create our own and advertise ourselves through this scandal.'"

Serenko, however, said the closure of the newspaper is likely to be a merely symbolic punishment, since "Gorodskiye vesti" had long been slated for reorganization. Volgograd-Inform was being liquidated and the newspaper was slated to close down before immediately reopening as a new juridical entity, owned as before by the city administration.

Serenko therefore predicted that the newspaper will soon reappear, although possibly under a different name.

If this is the case, then all parties will be winners. Unified Russia in Volgograd will have grabbed attention, religious groups possibly offended by the cartoon will have been appeased, and the editorial team of "Gorodskiye vesti" will continue working.

The scandal, however, will have made one victim. Tatyana Kaminskaya said she has already been told she will not be hired as editor in chief in the city administration's new daily.

By Golnaz Esfandiari

In the growing protest over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, journalists and cartoonist have had two reactions: some believe the cartoons crossed the bounds of good judgment, while others have argued in favor of press freedom and reprinted some or all of the 12 Danish cartoons. Iran's best-known cartoonist, Nikahang Kowsar, who was jailed in Iran in 2000 for several weeks and faced prosecution for drawing a cartoon deemed offensive by the government, is among those cartoonists who believe that religious sensitivities should be respected and that these cartoons -- because of their offending nature -- should not have been printed. Kowsar, who now lives in exile in Toronto, is, however, critical of some of the Muslim reactions to the issue, such as making threats and burning the Danish flag. RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari interviewed Kowsar.

RFE/RL: European papers are split in their reaction to the row over the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad; several dailies have reprinted the cartoons in defense of freedom of expression while others argue that the issue of freedom of speech does not justify [publishing] these cartoons, which are considered by most Muslims to be very offensive. What is your view as a caricaturist, since you have spent some time in jail in connection to your work?

Nikahang Kowsar: Since yesterday I've been contacting caricaturists in North America to get to know their views on this issue. An interesting view is the one expressed by Brian Gable, the cartoonist of the Canadian daily "Globe And Mail," which was published today. He says that one should avoid doing things that are for sure going to cause hatred. He has said that, as a cartoonist, 'I won't attack people's beliefs.' These are sensitivities that a press cartoonist should respect and some of the North American cartoonists believe that despite freedom of expression, an act that causes hatred is considered a crime in many countries. For example in Germany, where there is [also] freedom, if you campaign in favor of Nazis and against Jews, what is going to happen to you? You will face problems for causing hatred.

RFE/RL: What is your personal view? Are you against the publishing of cartoons that could be considered offensive by some people?

Kowsar: I can speak from two positions. As a board member of the world association that defends the rights of cartoonists and, as such, I should defend the cartoonists who have been threatened -- and I do so as an artist. On the other hand, I am critical of what they did: when you do something that you know will create hatred and annoy people who are a minority in Europe, this can be very insensitive and can cause uneasiness among them. I would personally never do such thing.

RFE/RL: But any cartoon or satirical view of any issue can cause irritation and anger among some. What about freedom of expression? Where are the limits?

Kowsar: Why are such cartoons not printed in North America, where there is freedom of the press? The cartoonists in North America don't even make such jokes about Jesus. These are very sensitive things; it depends on the sensitivity of the journalist himself because a press cartoonist is a journalist. A journalist knows what issues can be touched upon and what issues should not be touched upon. I think the chief editor [of the Danish daily that first published the cartoons] did not do the right thing.

RFE/RL: So where do you draw the line? How do you see the boundaries of the freedom of the press versus [causing] religious offense?

Kowsar: In one or two of the cartoons, the wrong deeds of Muslims extremists are connected to their leader, the Prophet Muhammad, who lived some 1,400 years ago; is it right if we say that the bad things that were done by Christians in the Middle Ages were also the fault of Jesus Christ? We have to draw some lines; there are differences between the behavior of a prophet and the behavior of his followers. I think such acts are expressing hatred and opposition rather than freedom of expression.

RFE/RL: Some say that the current crisis is a small clash between the East and the West, what is your view?

Kowsar: I believe this is the case; here [Samuel] Huntington's theory has been proven and [Muhammad] Khatami, [who promoted dialogue among civilizations] has lost.

RFE/RL: Do you think the Muslim reactions have been excessive?

Kowsar: I think the harsh and threatening reactions of many Muslim societies have been very wrong. I think they could have reacted through legal ways. In European countries some acts that cause hatred are considered a crime; [Muslims] could have brought a case through lawyers and justify that such an act should be considered illegal. I think this is more reasonable than causing more [problems] and, for example, boycotting Danish products and burning the Danish flag. The editor of a newspaper has done something, why should a country [be targeted]?