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World: Group Lists 10 Worst Areas For Journalists

Washington, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Kyrgyzstan among the 10 worst places to cover news. The committee says the worst of these 10 is the West Bank, the site of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In issuing the list today to mark the annual World Press Freedom Day, the CPJ notes that in November 2001 alone, eight journalists were killed while trying to report on the U.S.-led war to oust the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and to defeat the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, which the Taliban allowed to operate in the country.

The survey says Afghanistan remains a dangerous place for journalists as warlords fight for control of areas outside the allied forces' sphere of influence. Ann Cooper, CPJ's executive director, put it this way in an interview from New York with RFE/RL: "Even in post-Taliban Afghanistan, there's a lot of danger and just general chaos there that journalists have to deal with."

Meanwhile in Belarus, the committee says President Alyaksandr Lukashenka controls the media there as part of his effort to maintain his position of power. It notes that an official appointed by the government is in charge of publishing most independent newspapers in the capital, Minsk. It also accuses the government of using economic pressure to suppress independent media.

Cooper says Lukashenka does not appear to have changed the style of government in Belarus since the breakup of the Soviet Union, at least as far as a free press is concerned.

"Year in, year out, Belarus is one of the worst places to be a journalist. And the fundamental reason why we included it on this list is that there's a very dedicated group of journalists trying to practice independent journalism, but they are fighting a leader and a regime that operates like the old Soviet Union."

The committee says it found that Belarusian prosecutors have not investigated what it calls credible leads to solve the disappearance of the television cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski nearly two years ago. It notes that two former members of the state special forces have been convicted of kidnapping Zavadski, but his body has not even been found.

In Iran, the CPJ applauds what it calls a "lively press," but it notes that journalists must contend with conservative religious courts that have put great pressure on the country's news media since 2000. At that time, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused some members of the press of being foreign agents.

Since that speech by Khamenei, it says, Iranian courts have closed at least 47 newspapers, including those that have supported the reform movement of the country's president, Mohammad Khatami. According to Cooper, the political dynamic in Iran leaves Iran's independent media in an awkward position.

"You have President Khatami speaking about reform, but you've got the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and very conservative courts that don't like reform when it's spoken about in the press. So journalists are very much caught in the middle."

The CPJ says that besides the shutdown of some Iranian newspapers, many journalists in the country have been prosecuted for their work. Those convicted have been given stiff fines or have even been sent to prison. The organization says at least three journalists are now imprisoned for their work.

As for Kyrgyzstan, Cooper says it is a particular disappointment for the CPJ. She says once it was known as an "island of democracy" in Central Asia. Now, she says, President Askar Akaev, who is admitting U.S. troops to his country to support the military action in nearby Afghanistan, is using the fight against international terrorism as a pretext for suppressing dissent in order to maintain his hold on power.

According to Cooper, Akaev's tactic is not always to close newspapers or arrest their editors. Instead, she says, courts in Kyrgyzstan have accommodated the president's wishes by issuing unrealistically large awards to government officials who successfully sue local media for libel.

"There are politically motivated libel suits that end with exorbitant damage awards that essentially bankrupt or put a newspaper on the brink of bankruptcy. It's not so much a physical threat to journalists, but it is using the court system and other bureaucratic means to really put the screws to these papers."

The CPJ says the West Bank is at the moment the worst place in the world to cover news. It says Israeli forces there use intimidation and sometimes even potentially lethal force to keep journalists from covering their operations against Palestinians. The committee also notes that Israeli troops have repeatedly attacked the broadcasting facilities of the Palestinian Authority.

Among the other nations on the list of 10 worst places to be a journalist is Colombia, where 29 journalists have been killed in the past decade covering the drug trade and leftist insurgencies. Also listed is Eritrea, which has jailed at least 13 journalists for threatening what the government calls "national unity."

Burma was listed because, according to the CPJ, it jails journalists routinely for dissent. Also on the list is Zimbabwe, which has jailed and, in some cases, tortured dissenting journalists. Finally, the committee says Cuba is cited for threatening and sometimes jailing journalists who report on human rights abuses, corruption, and poor living conditions.