In the past decade the world has seen a dangerous escalation of violence against journalists and other media professionals. The year of 2006 was the bloodiest year on record, with over 150 media killings, hundreds arrested, attacked or threatened, as well as held hostage. This happens not only in the midst of armed conflicts or for political reasons, but also when journalists pursue stories on local issues of corruption, abuse of power and poverty.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, awards a World Press Freedom Prize every year. This year the prize was an unusual and tragic posthumous award to Anna Politkovskaya, killed in the entrance of her home in Moscow, for her courage in reporting events in Chechnya, after the world had given up paying attention to that ongoing conflict.
Thirteen journalists in Russia have been murdered since President Putin took power in 2000. None of the killers have been brought to justice. China, Cuba and Eritrea have the largest numbers of imprisoned journalists, 31 in China, 24 in Cuba, and 23 in Eritrea.
In recent years governments have turned to more sophisticated methods than killing to control their populations’ access to knowledge. In Venezuela, with the approach of election time, President Chavez accused news broadcasters of engaging in a “psychological war to divide, weaken and destroy the nation,” —no idle threat in a country where a vague 2004 media law allows the government to shut down stations for communication deemed “contrary to the security of the nation.”
In Russia violence is not enough. President Putin signed a measure recently that equates critical journalism with terrorism, broadening the definition of terrorism to include “public slander towards figures fulfilling state duties.” Within months, a human rights publication was shut down, legally.
Another tactic is the revolving door approach, first imprisoning journalists, then releasing them just before an outbreak of international protest. Since 2000, Iranian courts have banned more than 100 publications and jailed dozens of journalists. Most were freed quickly with the official threat of rearrest hanging over their heads. In other countries, heavy fines and withdrawal of advertising are enough to close down newspapers.
The mushrooming growth of the internet aroused hopes for an increase of freedom. However in China, where 120 million people are on line, the government has erected massive firewalls, sometimes with the participation of major corporations, to control the media. Iran has used the same tactic. All over Latin America, drug lords face no legal obstacles when reporters simply “disappear” after publishing exposés.
Massive self-censorship is a consequence of the dangers faced by reporters. When people are deprived of knowledge the world at large is the loser. What we don’t know will hurt us. The freedom of the press is a vital moral issue, intrinsically connected to human rights worldwide.
The Committee To Protect Journalists (www.cpj.org) produces a yearly report with data on individual countries. They lobby for journalists’ safety, and are sometimes successful in freeing journalists from jail. The American Ethical Union is highlighting the vital work of journalists and the importance of a free press by bringing attention to this organization. At the American Ethical Union’s Assembly in June, the Committee to Protect Journalists will receive the Elliot-Black Award . It is an honor which reflects back upon our commitment to a vital goal, because press freedom is a basis on which other freedoms rest.
Phyllis Ehrenfeld, AEU’s National Service Conference Representative to the UN,
Dr Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU Representative to the UN