The Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) says 2009 was the deadliest year for journalists across the globe and a record year for the number of reporters arrested or detained. More than 70 journalists lost their lives in 2009 while on the job.
The international media watchdog, which unveiled its annual survey at United Nations headquarters in New York on February 16, said Iran is carrying out one of the world's most severe crackdowns on journalists, with more than 90 reporters arrested last year. At least 47 of them remain in prison, according to CPJ.
Robert Mahoney, deputy director of CPJ, said the Iranian authorities have become adept at using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter against the very journalists who rely on them.
"Facebook, which the Iranian government is now using to go after and find dissidents and journalists, mining their data, seeing who their friends are -- they’re turning the technology that should liberate the press against the press," he said.
Maziar Bahari is a "Newsweek" correspondent who was detained in Iran last year and held for four months following the street protests that erupted after the disputed June presidential elections. He said the Iranian authorities are employing new tactics to harass journalists. He noted that a proposal is being mulled to make it a crime for Iranian citizens to work for foreign media.
"The Iranian authorities, especially the Revolutionary Guards, even though they have not passed this law yet, have said they are going to [make it] a crime to work for Persian media outside of Iran," Bahari said. "So, anyone who works for BBC Persian, VOA Persian, or Radio Farda which is the Iranian version of Radio Liberty, can be accused of espionage and can be tried as a spy. And as my interrogator once told me, we all know what the punishment is for a spy -- execution.”
The CPJ's Mahoney said that despite the grim data, activists and organizations like the UN should persistently urge governments to respect freedom of expression. "We do believe that constant advocacy on behalf of journalists, bringing their plight into the public sphere, making sure that no victim of a repressive government remains anonymous -- can help," he said. "And it did help in the case of Maziar [Bahari], who was freed, and with other journalists who have been freed."
Part of the reason, Mahoney said, for CPJ to want affiliation with the United Nations is that CPJ believes the UN mandate is to protect peace and promote human rights. He expressed his hope that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will take an active role in defending the freedom of expression.
"I would like the secretary-general to make a more assertive and firm stand in defense of freedom of expression," Mahoney said. "Freedom of expression matters. It is a prime pillar of democracy."