World political tensions eroded press freedom in 2002




The fight against terrorism damaged press freedom. Many governments used the battle to step up and justify their repression of opposition or independent voices. Fewer journalists were killed and cases of censorship increased only slightly, but other figures soared. Arrests rose by more than 40 per cent and twice as many journalists were attacked or threatened. 118 journalists are currently in prison.

In 2002 :

25 journalists were killed at least 692 were arrested at least 1,420 were physically attacked or threatened at least 389 media outlets were censored

On 1 January 2003, 118 journalists were in prison around the world

In 2001 :

n 31 journalists were killed n 489 arrested n 716 physically attacked or threatened n 378 media outlets were censored

On 1 January 2002, 110 journalists were in prison around the world.

Overall trends

The number of arrests, physical attacks and threats against journalists soared last year, even though fewer were killed and the number of censorship cases increased only slightly. Arrests (692) went up by more than 40 per cent and twice as many (1,420) were attacked or threatened. More and more journalists are being thrown in prison - there are now 118. If media assistants (3) and cyber-dissidents (at least 42) are added, the figure comes to 163 people jailed for trying to inform the public.

Every day last year, as in 2001, a media outlet was censored somewhere in the world, nearly a third of whose people live in countries where no press freedom exists. In many other countries - such as Bangladesh, Eritrea, Haiti, Nepal and Zimbabwe - the situation continues to get worse. As Reporters Without Borders noted in 2001, those who murder or physically attack journalists continue to get away with their crimes and this gives rise to further violence against the media.

Peace agreements and political reforms last year in Angola, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka noticeably increased press freedom. But Reporters Without Borders recorded a decline in democracies such as Italy and the United States, where some journalists went to jail.

25 journalists killed in 2002

Reporters Without Borders investigation shows that at least 25 journalists were killed last year because of their opinions or for simply doing their job. Their deaths were not accidents and most were killed by armed groups. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan. Three reporters were killed in Colombia because of the civil war there or because of their exposure of political corruption. In at least 10 cases, the state, especially the army, was directly involved. In Nepal, a pro-Maoist editor died while being tortured in a Kathmandu police station, and in the Palestinian Territories, excessive use of force by the Israeli army led to the death of three journalists.

Asia was once again the most dangerous continent for journalists, with 11 journalists killed. In Bangladesh, two were shot dead by armed groups in the south of the country. In the Philippines, two reporters, Benjaline Hernandez and Edgar Damalerio, were murdered by corrupt police or by soldiers on the northern island of Mindanao. Latin America was the next most dangerous continent, with nine journalists killed, including Brazil, where investigative journalist Tim Lopes was murdered by drug dealers. Russia, with four killings, was the world's most dangerous country for journalists and behind the murders were the underworld or local officials.

As in 2001, no journalists were killed in North Africa last year. In sub-Saharan Africa, a journalism student was killed in Uganda by police gunfire during a demonstration that got out of hand.

More than 30 murders of journalists last year are still being investigated, but as of 1 January 2003, there was no evidence linking their deaths to journalistic activity. At least four media assistants, including Elizabeth Obando, a distributor of the Colombian daily El Nuevo Día, were killed last year.

Impunity is still the rule

Hardly any murders of journalists in recent years have been solved. Those who ordered them still walk free and have never been touched by the law in their countries.

In Haiti, investigation of the killings of Radio Haiti Inter chief Jean Dominique (April 2000) and of Brignol Lindor (December 2001) have resulted in no new arrests. In the Lindor case, despite overwhelming evidence of the involvement of an armed militia close to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's party, neither the instigators nor those who committed the murder were picked up.

In Afghanistan, the defence and interior ministries tried to hide from visiting European officials their powerlessness in the enquiry into the killing of four foreign journalists in November 2001 by falsely claiming arrests had been made.

In Israel, investigations by the army after the death of an Italian photographer and two Palestinian journalists last year led to no punishment of those responsible. Israeli troops used this mood of impunity to continue roughing up journalists covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Ukraine, the enquiry into the 2001 death of TV station chief Igor Alexandrov was stalled despite a request by the country's supreme court for it to go forward. The prosecutor's office named as head of the enquiry a legal official who had openly clashed with the journalist in recent years.

In Burkina Faso, more than four years after the murder of Norbert Zongo, publisher of the weekly L'Indépendant, the enquiry into his death did not make any progress. The president's brother, François Compaore, who is deeply involved in the case and was questioned in 2001, has never been directly accused.

But in some cases, the law, backed by local and international press freedom organisations, was effective. In Mozambique, the trial of the alleged killers of journalist Carlos Cardoso began. The president's son, accused of ordering the murder, was questioned by judges. In Ukraine, the enquiry into the killing of journalist Georgy Gongadze began moving ahead after several years of obstruction by the public prosecutor's office. In Sri Lanka, suspects were arrested in the murder in 2000 of BBC stringer Mayilvaganam Nimalarajan. But the police enquiry, long held up by political allies of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has suffered through waste of time.

Nearly 700 journalists arrested

At least 118 journalists were in prison around the world as of 1 January 2003 because of their opinions or because they were trying to so their job. This is a slight increase over the 110 in jail at the start of last year. Nearly half of them (53) are being held in Asian countries. The world's biggest prisons for journalists are Nepal (18 prisoners), Eritrea (18), Burma (16), China (11) and Iran (9).

Last year 700 journalists were detained for various lengths of time. They ranged from Portuguese freelance reporter José Luis Manso Preto, held for several hours for refusing to reveal his sources, to the famous Burmese journalist Win Tin, who has been in prison for more than 13 years.

Nepal, where at least 130 journalists and media assistants were arrested by security police, had a dramatic year. Journalists accused of sympathising with Maoist rebels were detained by the army and police without any legal process and in very bad conditions. Gopal Budhathoki, publisher of an independent paper, was kept blindfolded with hands tied for 22 days in a prison cell. Protests by Nepalese journalist organisations forced the government to free a large number of media prisoners, who numbered as many as 35 in the middle of last year.

In Eritrea, 18 journalists arrested at the end of 2001 remained in prison, held in a secret place without any reason given or any legal process. Many journalists fled the country and the privately-owned press was banned.

In Israel, the government used administrative detention to hold 15 Palestinian journalists. One of them, Agence France-Presse photographer Hussam Abu Alan, was held for six months without any legal process.

In Burma, the regime maintained its criminal attitude by keeping ill and elderly journalists in prison in poor conditions. They have been given heavy sentences for supposedly putting out anti-government material or for giving information to foreign journalists.

In China, as well as 11 journalists in prison, 35 cyber-dissidents were in jail for putting out allegedly subversive material on the Internet and one of them was given a four-year sentence.

But there was some good news last year. Rwandan journalist Gédéon Mushimiyimana was declared innocent by the people of the area where he used to live and freed after six years in prison. In Pakistan, journalist Ayub Khoso was released after three years following a decision by the high court in Hyderabad. Burmese journalist Myo Myint Nyein was freed after 12 years in a dirty cell and in the United States, journalist Vanessa Leggett was let out after 168 days in prison for refusing to reveal her sources.

Nearly 1,500 journalists attacked or threatened

Physical attacks on journalists and their assistants as well as threats against them soared. At least 1,420 were beaten, threatened with death, kidnapped, attacked by the police or harassed. More than half (589) of these incidents took place in Asia and not just governments were responsible. Political party activists, armed groups and underworld thugs also joined in to attack the media. Political and social crises often involve violence against journalists and in Latin America, for example, disturbances in Venezuela, Haiti and Argentina greatly increased such attacks.

In Bangladesh, more than 380 journalists were physically attacked or threatened by political party activists and sympathisers. Most of the attacks were by supporters of the two ruling groups, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party. Journalists denouncing corruption, political violence or religious bigotry were major targets.

In Algeria, at least 20 journalists were roughed up by security forces or powerful local politicians. The correspondent of the daily El-Watan in the town of Tebessa killed himself a few months after being savagely beaten by henchmen of the town's chamber of commerce president.

Religious and ethnic tension made working conditions for journalists very bad. At least 20 were threatened during riots in northern Nigeria after a newspaper article about a Miss World contest. Anti-Muslim rioting in the Indian state of Gujarat included about 30 attacks on journalists.

In the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, at least 50 journalists were targeted by the Israel army and eight wounded by army gunfire. Some Palestinian groups, especially Hamas, attacked journalists during public demonstrations.

More than one media outlet censored each day

389 media outlets were censored around the world last year. Governments used and abused press laws allowing them to close media temporarily or permanently, ban foreign publications or clamp down on some kinds of information.

In China, the communist government continued to jam reception of foreign radio stations broadcasting in Chinese, Tibetan or Uighur. In July, it blocked transmissions of BBC World programmed received by satellite subscribers. In the run-up to the 16th Communist Party Congress, a dozen publications were shut down for articles the party considered offensive.

In Turkey, the number of TV and radio stations and written media suspended temporarily by the government media monitoring body RTÜK or by state security courts, was just as high as in 2001. Twenty media outlets were censored for alleged incitement to violence or undermining state security.

In Iran, the conservative-controlled judiciary again targeted the reformist press and at least 15 publications were suspended, including the independent daily Bonyan. In Sudan, the authorities censored independent publications more than a dozen times for reporting on matters such as AIDS or peace talks with anti-government rebels.

In Europe, increased censorship was most noticeable in Russia. In November, the FSB (ex-KGB) state security police seized the central computer of the weekly Versia because of its coverage of the special forces action to free hostages held by Chechen rebels in a Moscow theatre in October.

In Bangladesh, legal officials cancelled the broadcasting licence of the country's only privately-owned (and very popular) TV station. In Malaysia, the government banned the sale of four foreign publications, including The Economist, while in Burma, the military regime suspended newspapers that had printed the word "Thailand" during a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

In the Gulf states, censorship was as common as self-censorship. In Saudi Arabia, all foreign publications were read closely by the authorities before going on sale. The Saudi regime also called for a boycott of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, whose offices were closed last year in Kuwait, Jordan and (temporarily) in Iraq. In North Africa, the regime of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia continued to keep tight control of the country's state and privately-owned media.

In Africa, security forces often seized copies of publications governments did not like. In Zimbabwe, the premises of the independent paper the Daily News were regularly searched and in Togo, President Gnassingbe Eyadema's police seized 40,000 copies of an opposition paper.

There was very little censorship in Latin America last year except in Cuba, where no independent media are permitted and the government continued to jam reception of Cuban exile radio stations broadcasting from Florida.

Foreign press under strict surveillance

North Korea, which represses the media more than any other country and topped the 2002 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, allows very few foreign journalists to enter the country and only then escorted round the clock by official guides who threaten to punish those who try to take "forbidden" photos.

A dozen countries, including Iraq, Burma and Chechnya, still oblige foreign media to work with official guides. Many others require journalists to have a special press visa and those who try to work without it face increasingly heavy penalties. Two journalists for the British TV station Channel 4 were held for two weeks in Bangladesh. Their local assistant, Saleem Samad, who is the Reporters Without Borders correspondent, was still being held a month after being tortured by police.

In Cuba, the harassment of a foreign reporter, sometimes by President Fidel Castro in person, often serves as a warning to the rest of the foreign media. In October, police seized all the equipment of Catherine David, a reporter for the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

Press freedom endangered by fight against "terrorists"

The fight against terrorism launched by the United States and its allies after the 11 September attacks damaged freedom of the press. Many governments stepped up and justified their repression of opposition or independent voices using anti-terrorism as an excuse. This included journalists accused, often without proof, of supporting Maoist "terrorists" in Nepal, FARC "terrorists" in Colombia, Chechen "terrorists" in Russia and Tibetan and Uighur "terrorists" in China.

Terrorist movements, especially Al-Qaeda, have of course shown their determination to stamp out freedom of expression, but the excesses of security forces in countries involved in the fight against terrorism cannot in any way be justified. In Afghanistan, half a dozen journalists were physically attacked or threatened by US soldiers or their Afghan assistants.

The dozen anti-terrorist laws passed in the world last year contained clauses undermining a journalist's right not to reveal sources of information. Protection of these sources was a major issue during the year. Under authoritarian regimes, but also democratic ones, dozens of journalists were questioned, placed under official investigation, arrested or threatened for refusing to reveal their sources, especially in cases of terrorism.

Press freedom is not guaranteed in more than half the world's countries. International courts offer new hope in the fight against impunity but vigilance is still necessary in 2003.