Press freedom: the right to raise hell

| January 4, 2013 | 0 Comments
Journalists in Istanbul demand the release of arrested colleagues and better protection for press freedom in March 2011.

Journalists in Istanbul demand the release of arrested colleagues and better protection for press freedom in March 2011.

Only a fraction of the world’s population experiences a free press

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky

“It is a newspaper’s duty,” The Chicago Times observed in 1861, “to print the news and raise hell.” It is much easier to “print the news,” with or without hell-raising, when journalists are free to do their jobs. In North America, we may be shocked to learn the alarming statistic that only 14.5 percent of the world’s population live in countries with press freedom, as reported in Freedom of the Press 2012, published by Freedom House, an American non-governmental organization that monitors and measures the freedom of global media.

This Washington, D.C.-based organization rates countries by assigning points and gives grades of Free, Partly Free and Not Free. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization, that monitors and scores press freedom around the world, reaches similar conclusions.
Freedom of the press determines what people can know about their own country and, indeed, about the world. It measures the limits a country has placed on its government. In practical terms, it defines the freedom of journalists to present news without government interference — the ability to gather information from a range of sources and to broadcast that information to the public without state restraint.

A free press is essential to democracy. Informed people are empowered people; their knowledge shapes their actions and decisions. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) makes this very clear: “Free media transform societies by enlightening the decision making process with information, and thus empowering individuals to take control of their destinies.”
Within the countries that are considered the worst long-term transgressors of press freedom (Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan), media cannot operate independently of the state. The press must function as the voice of the state and the population has very limited access to unbiased information; opposition by the media is suppressed through imprisonment and torture. But the countries of most importance in state control of newspapers are the countries with the largest populations and largest economies — China (population 1.344 billion), Russian Federation (population 141 million) and India (population 1.241 billion) according to the World Bank’s 2011 figures.

China, already the site of what, in 2012, Freedom House called “the world’s most significant system of media repression,” increased its hold on the media with arrests and censorship in 2012 during the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress and an expected change in leadership. China is “the world’s largest poor performer” among countries with dismal records of press freedom. During the Arab Spring uprisings, China suppressed coverage of events, blocked social media platforms such as Twitter, and imposed tighter controls on investigative reporting and entertainment programming. Party directives delivered daily to media organizations restricted coverage concerning public health, foreign policy, environmental accidents and deaths in police custody. Writers and activists with significant online followers disappeared, were abused in custody and, in many cases, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

A woman places flowers before a portrait of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot to death in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

A woman places flowers before a portrait of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, shot to death in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.

Prior to clamping down on the press further, China imprisoned at least 34 journalists in 2011 for breaking ambiguous laws such as “inciting subversion” and “revealing state secrets,” according to Human Rights Watch (January 2012). Those who were jailed include investigative journalist Qi Chonghuai, who had been sentenced in August 2008 to a four-year prison term for “extortion and blackmail” after exposing corruption among party officials in the city of Tengshou, in his home province of Shandong. In July 2011, he was two weeks away from release when the court that originally convicted him retried him on the same charges and extended his sentence to eight years. He was subjected to torture and hard labour in a prison coal mine. Human rights advocates at the time described China’s legal process as “flawed” and declared the second conviction a flagrant violation of Chinese law.

In another example of China’s deteriorating regard for journalistic freedom, Southern Metropolis Daily editor Song Zhibiao was sidelined in May 2011 for writing a commemorative piece on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in which he criticized the government’s recovery efforts. The China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong confirmed that Song would be “prevented from writing editorials for an unspecified period of time.” Shortly after, Xu Zhiyong, a Beijing lawyer and activist known for his blogs, disappeared. Dozens more activists and writers were detained or simply disappeared ahead of the 18th congress, following citizens’ appeals for a “Jasmine revolution.”

China is ranked 174th out of 179 counties in the 2011/2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is on the Reporters Without Borders list of “Enemies of the Internet,” which is updated every year. Despites China’s censorship capability, its journalists and Internet users continued to test their boundaries by drawing attention to scandals or launching campaigns on blogging platforms.

Journalists march in Istanbul in early 2011, demanding better protection for press freedom.

Journalists march in Istanbul in early 2011, demanding better protection for press freedom.

India also does not figure well in press freedom reports, exhibiting a worrisome tendency to try to control Internet content and, despite being the world’s largest democracy, has seen 17 journalists murdered since 1992. India’s scores from Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders dropped in the past two years. With China and India poised to become juggernauts in the world economy, their poor record of press freedom is of tremendous concern and an indication of other issues. Although competition for newspaper sales is less about informing people than selling news that will attract people’s attention, a free press is closely associated with a free market. A record of abuse in one area is an indication of similar abuse in the other.

Russia, Iran and Venezuela have used a range of strategies to strangle their media, detaining critics, closing media organizations, shutting down blogs, and filing libel or defamation suits against individual journalists. In October 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, special correspondent for the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, strident critic of President Vladimir Putin and the war in Chechnya, and a prominent human rights advocate, was found shot to death in her apartment building. A 9-millimetre pistol had been left at her side, the signature of a contract killing. Days after the murder, Putin declared that it was an overseas plot to discredit Russia and essentially told investigators not to look at government officials as suspects. After an investigation best described as sketchy, 11 suspects were arrested by August 2007. In 2009, several defendants were acquitted while Russian authorities insisted they were conducting a thorough second investigation. In July 2012, a retired police official was indicted on charges of complicity, charges that were downgraded several times until investigators made a deal with him to reveal the murder’s mastermind.

In October 2012, the investigation was closed without identifying the person who ordered the killing, although five people suspected of involvement, including the alleged gunman, were expected to go to trial. On Nov. 6, 2012, the New York Times quoted the lead investigator, Petros V. Garibyan, as saying that the killer, “first and foremost … sought a demonstrative and resonant act aimed at intimidating all of you — journalists — as well as society and the authorities.” The investigation showed that the killer had stalked Politkovskaya for five days, waiting to kill her on Oct. 7, Vladimir Putin’s birthday.
In Pakistan, which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) considers the deadliest country in the world for journalists, threats against the press from a range of agencies have reached unprecedented levels of violence against reporters. (The CPJ promotes press freedom and investigates the causes of suspicious deaths of journalists.) Such danger impels journalists to self-censor, particularly on sensitive subjects such as blasphemy laws and the country’s notorious security forces.
The lack of a free press does not necessarily mean people have no access to information in the age of the Internet, nor does access to information begin and end with the traditional press. In the digital age, people have unlimited access to empowering information from a range of sources. In a free society, that is.

A phenomenon of the Arab Spring was the role of citizen journalists in the midst of protests and civil uprisings. While organizations such as Al-Jazeera could not gain entry into Syria, citizens witnessed events and used their cellphone cameras to record and publicize atrocities in order to bring global scrutiny and outrage to oppressive governments.

New media and bold citizenry made significant contributions to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and played a vital role in creating a new dynamic in Russia. However, although new media, especially when augmented by mass media, provide effective means for informing citizenry of government abuses and rallying civic action against intolerant regimes, they are less effective in creating democracy. This is particularly true in countries where access to public information is controlled by the state.
Repression of news about the Arab Spring ranged from information blackouts in state media in Zimbabwe and Ethiopia to China’s sophisticated filtering of the Internet and text messaging. In Uganda, Angola and Djibouti, where anti-government protests broke out, journalists reporting on the demonstrations were harshly, sometimes violently, reprimanded.

The state of press freedom around the world is fluid, with often small but measurable gains in what the press can do, and losses when governments impose restrictions on their press. For example, Thailand was downgraded to Not Free in 2010 by Freedom House, but regained Partly Free status in 2011 due to a calmer political situation that enabled expanded reporting on elections and “greater space for dissent and coverage of sensitive topics,” as well as less violence directed towards reporters.
But the changed rating begs the question. If reporters are free to report when everything is hunky-dory but not when the political situation is inflamed, are they actually free of government intervention? It would appear that they are not. Despite Thailand’s better rating, the country’s judicial environment deteriorated through the year with the lèse-majesté law, which forbids criticism of the monarchy — a law applied more frequently and harshly by a new Internet security agency that can implement shutdowns more quickly and with less oversight.

According to the Freedom House report, 2011’s Arab Spring uprisings resulted in “potentially far-reaching gains for media freedom in the Middle East and North Africa,” regions where autocratic leaders exert stringent control over the media. The entire region continues to have the world’s poorest record. The catalyst for the positive changes initiated by the Arab Spring was the suicide in December 2010 of Mohammed Bouazizi, a vegetable peddler in Tunisia. He set himself on fire after a police officer confiscated his vegetable cart and humiliated him in public, with the whole horrible incident caught on camera and made public by mobile technology and social media, where it went viral.
The desperate act of a seemingly insignificant and poor man ignited long-simmering anger over injustice, poverty and political greed, and ultimately led to the fall of the Tunisian government and the naissance of the Arab Spring. Tunisia turned out to be ground zero for transformation brought about by technology and frustrated citizens; the “wave of revolution,” as the media have detscribed it, rippled across northern Africa.

The improvements in the Arab world were the most significant conclusions reached in Freedom of the Press 2012 and came at the end of eight successive years of declining press freedom around the world, reflecting a phenomenon that affected most regions. The uprisings early in 2011 were accompanied by encouraging changes outside of the Middle East and North Africa, in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Zambia. Progress was also registered in Georgia, Nepal, Niger, Sierra Leone and Togo. Among the countries with significant gains in press freedom were Myanmar, Libya and Tunisia, all of which had had media environments that were among the most oppressive in the world.
Libya and Tunisia made single-year leaps that were unheard of in the three-decade history of the report. Such changes, however promising, must be viewed with as much concern as optimism; South Africa passed the Protection of Information Bill in 2011, which allows government and state agencies to withhold information across a range of topics considered to be in the national interest or on the grounds of national security.

Several democratic countries, particularly Chile and Hungary, have experienced a decline in press freedom, according to Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders. Because of the decline in the past few years of the status of countries that had previously had free press, the global population in countries with press freedom — 14.5 percent, or one in six people — is the lowest in more than a decade.
Disturbingly to us in Canada, Britain and the United States were not exempt from threats to a free press. Britain lost ground due to injunctions filed by celebrities and wealthy individuals that prevented the media from reporting targeted information and even acknowledging the injunctions themselves. Additionally, there were attacks on journalists covering riots; and the police used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, established in 1984, to force media organizations to submit unedited footage of rioting in London and Northern Ireland. The American press was adversely affected by detentions and police manhandling of journalists covering protests involving the Occupy movement.
We would like to think that Canada has a completely free press, so it comes as a shock that Canada is ranked 19th globally by Freedom House and 10th out of 179 by Reporters Without Borders. Finland and Norway share first-place ranking in both indexes. By comparison, the countries are quite similar; they are democracies with a range of newspapers and magazines, and with high Internet use; they protect linguistic, religious and minority rights and freedom; and in recent years they have noted increasing instances of racism or xenophobic behaviour. While media freedom is generally satisfactory in Canada, where we fall short is in the area of access to information. It has become harder for the media to access official data and judicial harassment has become the main form of violation of a free press. Journalists have been prosecuted for refusing to reveal sources.
A report by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) notes that government agencies now exceed the legislated 30-day response time 44 per cent of the time. The report claims that access has become more difficult since Stephen Harper became prime minister, although the report does not state if the change is due to policy or budgetary restrictions that have reduced staff in some government departments.

The means by which people receive their news today is significant; as Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” Television remains a powerful messenger. Among authoritarian leaders who control the television news in their countries are the leaders of Russia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, most Eurasian states, China and Vietnam. Those with access to mobile technology in combination with cable and satellite television have greater opportunities to receive news.

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than 60 percent of the world’s households do not have a computer and only 35 percent of the global population describe themselves as Internet users. Television is still a powerful medium for news dissemination but, while the last decade saw increased media diversity in many countries due to significant growth in the availability of cable and satellite television, state control over broadcast media remains a key method of restricting information.

Freedom House’s analysis and rankings, it says, are based on universal criteria. “The starting point is the smallest, most universal unit of concern: the individual. We recognize cultural differences, diverse national interests and varying levels of economic development. Yet Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”
“The operative word for this index,” says Freedom House, “is ‘everyone.’”
Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is a writer from Alberta.


A deadly business
By Laura Neilson Bonikowsky

The practice of journalism is increasingly a deadly business. In 2012 alone, more than 90 journalists and 20 media staff were killed; more than 50 of them have been confirmed as targeted killings motivated by the individuals’ activities as journalists.

The deadliest country for the press in 2012 was Syria, where nearly 30 media personnel were killed, according to the International News Safety Institute (INSI). The worst countries, rated by INSI, were Syria, Somalia, Nigeria, Mexico and Brazil.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which examines the motives behind journalists’ deaths, the five deadliest countries in 2012 were Syria, Somalia, Pakistan, Brazil and Thailand. Historically, according to CPJ, the deadliest countries overall are Iraq (94 murders), Philippines (70), Algeria (58), Colombia (40) and Russia (33). CPJ reports that 946 media personnel have been killed since 1992; no charges or convictions were made in 583 of those cases.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many reporters are targeted and killed each year; incidents are covered up, the news is withheld. Most cases are not prosecuted.

Sadly, unless a journalist is a prominent Western correspondent, little to no attention is paid. In 2002, people around the world were horrified when the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan; four months later, when Globo TV’s investigative reporter, Tim Lopes, was kidnapped and brutally murdered by drug traffickers in Brazil, there was no outcry at all.
The single deadliest event carried out against journalists since 1992 was the 2009 massacre of 32 media personnel and 26 others in the town of Ampatuan, Maguindanao province, Philippines. The victims, in a convoy travelling to a political event, were ambushed by 100 men. The aftermath of the Maguindanao massacre (aka Ampatuan massacre) was a fiasco of contaminated evidence, intimidated witnesses, charges of corruption, threats and violence, and the replacement of several lead prosecutors, most recently in October 2012.

What follows is a list of some of the journalists killed in 2012 whose deaths have been confirmed as, or are suspected of being, targeted murders reported by INSI, CPJ and Reporters Without Borders.
Gilles Jacquier, a French journalist, was among eight killed by hostile fire during a pro-regime rally in Homs, Syria, January 11. Although most foreign journalists have been banned from Syria since March 2011, the award-winning journalist and cameraman for France 2 TV was one of 12 invited to Homs on a government-authorized trip.

Wisut “Ae Inside” Tangwitthayaporn, editor and owner of Inside Phuket newspaper, was shot three times, Jan. 12 on the island of Phuket, Thailand, by gunmen on a motorcycle as he drove with his wife along a busy street during rush hour. Inside Phuket had been reporting on illegal land titles.
Marie Colvin, American journalist with the Sunday Times, was killed in Homs, Syria, Feb. 22, along with French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik, when their makeshift press centre was shelled by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Despite the ban on foreign journalists, many smuggled themselves into Syria to cover the country’s conflict.

Ali Ahmed Abdi, a reporter with Radio Galkayo and contributor to the pro-government website Puntlandi, was shot in the head near his home in Galkayo, Somalia, March 4. Radio Galkayo is one of the few outspoken critics of the insurgent group Al-Shabaab, which has fought the Puntland administration since 2007 and is suspected of shooting another reporter and throwing a grenade into the station.
Regina Martinez Pérez, a reporter for Proceso magazine known for her in-depth reporting on drug cartels, was found dead in her home in Xalapa, Mexico, April 28. She had been brutally beaten and strangled. In the week before her murder, she had covered stories involving the activities of various drug cartels.
Farhan Jeemis Abdulle was gunned down on his way home from work at Radio Daljir in Galkayo, Somalia, May 2. He started as a reporter with the station and became a producer, editor and host. He was also a correspondent for Simba Radio, Mogadishu. He had been threatened a few days before the attack; the suspects are Al-Shabaab insurgents.

Jamal Uddin, a reporter for the Bengali-language Gramer Kagoj, was attacked by a group of men wielding machetes and other sharp weapons in a tea stall in Kashipur village, Bangladesh, June 15. A suspect told police they had drugged Uddin and attacked him when he passed out; the attack was in reprisal for his reporting on the local drug trade.

Valério Luiz de Oliveira, host of a radio sports program known for his critical commentary on the local soccer team’s management, was shot at least four times outside the Radio Journal offices in Goiânia, Brazil, July 5. He had been banned from the team’s headquarters.

Mika Yamamoto was killed in clashes between rebels and Syrian government forces in Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 20. She was a video and photojournalist for Japan Press and was among a group of journalists travelling with the rebel Free Syrian Army to a bombed out area when a group of government soldiers opened fire on them.

Abdirahman Yasin Ali, director of Radio Hamar (Voice of Democracy), was among three journalists killed by suicide bombers in a café in Mogadishu, Somalia, Sept. 20. Two men entered the café, which was frequented by the press and civil servants, and detonated bombs, killing 14 people and injuring 20.

Ahmed Farah Ilyas was killed by three gunmen in Las Anod, Somalia, Oct. 23, hours after reporting on a bombing that authorities blamed on Islamic insurgents. Ahmed was a correspondent for London-based Universal TV and had been detained with two other journalists on Oct. 12, in connection with coverage of Las Anod residents who supported the new prime minister.

Julius Cauzo, a radio journalist, was fatally shot by a gunman on a motorcycle in Cabanatuan City, Philippines, Nov. 8. He had received death threats prior to the attack, but the motive was unclear. Cauzo was an outspoken critic of local politics and corruption.



The grave of Anna Politkovskaya at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery in Moscow.

The grave of Anna Politkovskaya at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery in Moscow.

By the numbers
The Committee to Protect Journalists began keeping records in 1992;
946 journalists have been killed worldwide since that date.

473 journalists were held in captivity at the end of 2012.

Annual stats:
1992: 44 killed
Deadliest country: Tajikistan (9 killed)

1997: 26 killed
Deadliest country: India (7 killed)

2002: 21 killed
Deadliest country: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (3 killed)

2007: 70 killed
Deadliest country: Iraq (32)

2012 (as of November 26): 55 killed Deadliest country: Syria (22)

Note: These figures relate to journalists known to have been killed because of their work and do not include media workers or those who have been killed with unconfirmed motives.

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