The high price of a free press

In many countries, democracy is forged on the backs of journalists willing to risk their lives.

In Colombia, one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter, Bogota-based Medios para la Paz (Media for Peace) tries to keep journalists safe by teaching them how to do their jobs better.

Its traveling workshops help reporters in remote areas understand how to wisely and ethically cover the armed conflict that grips their homeland: Don't try to be a hero, do tell the truth in your stories.

Despite such efforts, four journalists have died in Colombia since the end of June - the most killed in a four-week period since the late 1980s. The deaths are being investigated by media-rights groups to determine if they were premeditated, or the result of the everyday dangers of the country's civil unrest.

Colombia's decades old conflict is one of many around the world currently putting journalists at risk -including those in hot spots like Chechnya, the West Bank, and Zimbabwe. Many influences are contributing to the tough conditions for journalists -A from the growing pains of fledgling democracies to the changing face of localized conflicts, where unlike World War II, the fronts aren't so well-defined.

"The nature of conflicts is shifting," says Phil Bennett, the editor in charge of international news at The Washington Post. "They are much more unpredictable, there's more of them," and often they have no regard for civilian life, which includes journalists, he says.

The situation is particularly bad for members of the local media in a number of countries in South America and the countries of the former Soviet Union, where groups -guerrillas, paramilitaries, rebels -who don't like what's reported about them know they can eliminate their critics with little likelihood of being punished.

In response, news organizations and those who monitor press freedom are training local and international journalists in combat tactics, and are having more discussions about how to cover dangerous beats. Journalists are the organizers of Colombia's Medios para la Paz, which has attracted more than 900 attendees to its workshops since they began in 1998. And groups like the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) are actively putting pressure on governments and others in a position to influence change.

Prior to this year, there were signs of improvement. The number of journalists killed or imprisoned at the end of 2000 dropped significantly from the mid-1990s, according to the CPJ (see chart, right). And the number of countries rated as "free" by Washington-based Freedom House in its 2000 press survey (72) was the highest it's been anytime in the past 10 years -even though many of the nations showing improvement were not particularly influential ones.

The fall of communism and the increase of globalization in the past decade have had some influence on countries that want to adhere to the principles of those whose company they wish to keep. But nations in transition - rather than those that retain total control of the media, like North Korea and Iraq - can be the most volatile places for journalists, as they and the subjects of their reporting are just learning the rules of an independent press.

That's one of the reasons for cautious optimism about recent statistics, say those who compile them. "If you only look at the number of journalists killed and the number in prison, there is some good news in recent years," says Ann Cooper, executive director of the CPJ. "But at the same time, we don't see a drop in the total number of cases we document each year." (Indeed, the group's book "Attacks on the Press in 2000" is more than 500 pages long, including listings of threats, harassment, and censorship.)

The dissolution of the Soviet Union, for example, has brought plenty of violations of media rights. "There are many issues that powerful groups inside and outside the Russian state do not want investigated," says Sarah Mendelson, an assistant professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "Journalists have been blown to bits pursuing stories that have to do with corruption in the military [or] human rights abuses in Chechnya," she says, adding, "What the numbers don't tell you is the sense of fear that some journalists experience, [how] they are deterred from doing stories."

Elsewhere, countries are taking their cues from less-flattering Western practices. Britain still has criminal libel laws (which could put a reporter in prison) on its books, even though it hasn't used them in years. Those same kinds of laws are used in African countries that Britain once had a colonial relationship with, like Zimbabwe.

This doesn't sit well with some observers, who point out that it's difficult for Western European countries to influence others to repeal repressive laws when they themselves haven't dispensed with them. "With globalization, you can no longer see press freedom as being distinct and separate around the world," says David Dadge, editor of "The World Press Freedom Review," published by the International Press Institute in Vienna.

Changes in news gathering are also having an effect on what happens to journalists, especially international correspondents. US media outlets have cut back on foreign reporting in the past decade, closing bureaus around the world. To fill in the gaps, there are more people freelancing, and in some cases organizations are forced to send less-experienced journalists into hot spots. With television media in particular cutting back, cameramen for the TV divisions of Reuters and The Associated Press are often hurt as they vie for coveted visual coverage of unfolding events.

Foreign correspondents are typically safer than local journalists in the countries where they work. But those covering conflicts in countries other than their own are often caught in the crossfire. Freelance and staff writers for this paper have been killed or detained in recent years, as have those working for other media outlets.

These are often simply mistakes -situations that result from being in the wrong place at the wrong time - not from a reporter's inexperience, says The Washington Post's Mr. Bennett. Really good journalists get close to civilian life, he says, "and that puts you in the line of fire."

What has changed in the past few decades is how organizations are preparing their employees for tough assignments. In the US, CNN, Reuters, and the AP send staff to boot camps run by former British military commandos to learn how to negotiate with a kidnapper or deal with first aid in the field. Journalists in other countries are also participating in the course conducted by the six-year-old Centurion Risk Assessment Services, thanks to efforts by the Freedom Forum, which has paid the way for reporters from Colombia and parts of Africa to attend.

"Nobody even dreamed of something like that in my day," when correspondents had to fend for themselves in dealing with traumatic situations, says Anne Nelson, who reported from El Salvador 20 years ago, and now runs the international program at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

The Post, for one, has resisted the commando approach. "We keep revisiting the issue of how to train people to deal with violence on their beat," says Bennett. "What we've done is engage in intensive discussions with our correspondents about how to work in conflict zones."

Other US reporters are getting experience from programs designed to spark interest in overseas assignments. Since 1998, journalists have been going abroad for a few months after being trained in the Pew International Journalism Program based at Johns Hopkins University. "I'd done nothing overseas until going to the worst country in the Western Hemisphere, but I did feel that program gave me the opportunity to prepare pretty well," says Steve Inskeep, a National Public Radio reporter who was a Pew fellow in Colombia in 1999.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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