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Journalists still under threat worldwide

By | May 3rd 2009

Media’s influence on thought, capacity to foster dialogue, understanding and reconciliation are the focus of discussions at a Unesco conference marking World Press Freedom Day today (Sunday).

Said Unesco’s Director General Koichiro Matsuura: "We must strengthen our efforts to build a media that is critical of inherited assumptions yet tolerant of alternative perspectives; a media that brings competing narratives into a shared story of interdependence; a media that responds to diversity through dialogue."

But even as the Doha conference, which ends today gets underway, a disturbing upswing in the number of journalists being imprisoned or killed, and more online journalists getting jailed by autocratic governments, is causing concern.

Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Joel Simon says while the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s brought an era of journalistic freedom, recent years have seen a reversal of the same.

CPJ is an independent, non-profit organisation founded in 1981 to promote press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report news without fear of reprisal.

in the line of duty

According to CPJ’s research, 11 journalists worldwide have been killed in the line of duty in the first four months of this year. Since January 1992, some 734 journalists have been killed for their work.

The job descriptions of incarcerated journalists reflect the changing nature of news organisations, with last year’s tally marking the first time that freelancers – 45 - comprised such a large percentage of jailed journalists. In 2007, 34 of the 127 jailed journalists were freelancers; in 2006, the figure was 31 of 134. Iraq remains the deadliest country for journalists with at least 88 having been killed, mainly by insurgents and militias since the war began in 2003.

Many more journalists, CPJ says, have been imprisoned - 125 last year alone. Among the 29 nations CPJ identified as jailing journalists, China jails the most, followed by Cuba, Burma, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.

Rodney Pinder, the Director of the International News Safety Institute, says since the September 11 attacks on the United States, parts of the world have been more dangerous for journalists to work in. "The war on terrorism gives autocratic governments an excuse to crack down on the flow of information," he said.

The Brussels-based Institute is dedicated to the safety of news media personnel.

Pinder said only one in four journalists killed was covering combat, and in two-thirds of the cases the killers have not been identified.

"Murder is cheap censorship. Terror increases self censorship. Both close the window on information flow," he said.

Simon and Pinder were speaking at an annual Press Freedom Day meeting co-hosted by the Congressional Caucus for the Freedom of the Press and the Center for International Media Assistance.

Dictatorial governments

Despotic governments, Simon said, have launched a "counteroffensive on Internet journalists".

In a prison census released last year, CPJ found that more Internet journalists are jailed worldwide than journalists working in any other medium. In China, for example, 24 of the 28 reporters known to be imprisoned are online journalists. Militant extremists are increasingly using the Internet to speak directly to their followers and killing journalists who disagree with them, Simon said, "is cheap and an excellent way to spread fear."

Simon says CPJ is working with a coalition of human rights groups, academics and Internet companies on the Global Network Initiative, an effort to establish guidelines for information industries to protect freedom of expression and privacy.

CPJ, he said, is looking at legislation that would compel Internet service providers to follow a "road map" when governments seek to enlist them in acts of censorship or surveillance that violate international standards of human rights.

—Internet sources

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