NEW YORK — For three years, Chris Anyanwu sat in a dark, unsanitary prison cell crocheting colorful hats and writing on any suitable thing she could find. Usually, she had to use toilet paper.
Her crime had been to accurately report a coup plot in Nigeria. A military court sentenced her to life in prison. "It was a joke. There wasn't any trial. I wasn't able to see my staff or a lawyer," says Ms. Anyanwu, the editor and publisher of the independent Sunday Magazine. "The military people didn't protest the truth of the story. They were really trying to shake you up or break you, so I just kept calm."
Anyanwu's plight reflects an ironic trend worldwide. With political upheaval in much of Africa and the emergence of new democracies from South America to the former Soviet Union, the press has become much freer and more aggressive than it was a decade ago. As a result, media watchdog groups say journalists face new and increasing threats.
They range from the rise of organized crime to an increase in the use of criminal libel and "insult" laws to gag an often nascent and struggling free press.
"Initially, the emerging democracies will say, 'We're all for freedom of the press,'" says Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international monitoring group in New York. "Then they'll see what freedom of the press means - taking a critical look at the government, trying to hold it accountable for its actions, and things get rolled back."
At the same time, the reins on free speech are tightening in many countries, and the level of danger faced by reporters, particularly in the developing world, remains remarkably high.
In 1997, more than 40 reporters were killed because of their work, according to Freedom House, a New York-based monitoring group. More than 200 journalists were assaulted, and another 300 languished in jail. "This year our caseload is not lightening at all," Ms. Cooper says of the 2,000 reports of attacks her group is now investigating.
The number of direct assaults ebbs and flows in different parts of the world, depending often on the political stability of a region. In Algeria, still torn by civil war, a concerted assassination campaign against the press begun in 1993 claimed 59 lives. It now appears to have subsided. No reporters were killed in 1997.
But strict state censorship and the threat of prosecution for revealing "security matters" have replaced physical intimidation. Reporters still operate undercover and in a climate of fear.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, as the political and military situation has deteriorated this year, the number of reporters killed has increased. In 1997, CPJ confirmed four journalists were killed for their work. This year, it's already investigating the deaths of 13 reporters.
Nigeria's reins loosen?
In Nigeria, the death of military dictator Gen. Sani Abacha last spring change the calculus for Ms. Anyanwu. She and 20 others were freed in June. But the criminal libel decree that put her in prison still stands. There have been calls to repeal it. The government is examining the issue.
"It makes it treason to even criticize the head of state or people in power, and it is open to interpretation," says Anyanwu. "Whatever you write, you may think it's OK, but to them [the government] it's treasonable."
In war-torn Yugoslavia, President Slobodan Milosevic used the threat of NATO attacks earlier this month to issue emergency decrees banning any coverage that could be considered "unpatriotic," or that would foment "defeatism, panic, and fear."
The decree has already been used to shut down two radio broadcasters and three independent Belgrade papers.
"Cracking down on the media is one of the first things a government that feels threatened does," says Sherry Rockey, executive director of the International Women's Media Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group.
But for many reporters, the heavy-handed government is increasingly only one worry. In the former Soviet Union, parts of Africa, and Latin American countries, the growth of international mafias has created a new threat for journalists.
When Anna Zarkova got an anonymous phone call last spring telling her she'd never again recognize her own face, she thought it was a joke. As the chief crime reporter at Bulgaria's "Trud Daily" in Sophia, she had grown accustomed to intimidating phone threats. Her exposs on organized crime and corruption had angered powerful people.
Then one morning last May, as she stood waiting at a bus stop, someone tossed sulfuric acid in her face. "In the very moment of the attack I was extremely shocked and scared," says Ms. Zarkova, who still wears a white patch over her left eye. "My first thought was that my kids would be attacked also because a couple of weeks before I got phone calls threatening them."
Her children were safe. But the left side of her face was burned. "It was more psychological violence," she says. "I think they were also trying to show my colleagues that they'd be attacked, too, that I was just the first one."
Determined to press on
Zarkova is determined to continue reporting on the mafia bosses that are undermining Bulgaria's transition to a healthy, free-enterprise democracy. She's urging her colleagues not to be intimidated by the attack on her.
It's a sentiment Blanca Rosales understands and supports. As the editor in chief of La Republica in Lima, Peru, Ms. Rosales has become a leading critic of the corruption in President Alberto Fujimori's government and abuses by the military.
As a result, she and her family have been repeatedly threatened. Once, she was kidnapped and held for hours at gunpoint before being released.
"Right now, Fujimori is trying a new tactic; he's trying to discredit the independent press in the eyes of the public," she says. "You criticize the government, you're punished."