For international press, freedom comes at a price

Friday is World Press Freedom Day.

It is commemorated routinely by journalists, human rights organizations, and a few governments – and perhaps with a UN resolution. But this year, it deserves special note, for it's been a particularly rough time for journalists, who have been killed, harassed, and prevented from gaining information to which they – and thus the public – are entitled.

It may appear unseemly to focus on journalists in a year when so many office workers and firefighters and military personnel and others have perished in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, in the fighting in Afghanistan, and more recently in the Middle East.

Journalists, after all, just do their jobs – like plumbers and accountants and anybody else. But their work is sometimes attended by special hazards, and the product of their work reaches extensive audiences, and when they do it well it can be a significant factor for change and the betterment of our society. So there is sometimes a unique aspect to it.

As Tom Stoppard wrote: "Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps a tally of newsmen and women killed in the line of duty, says that 37 died this way in 2001. After Sept. 11, things took a turn for the worse. A freelance news photographer was killed while trying to cover the terrorist attack on New York's World Trade Center. The American assault on the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan followed, putting many more journalists, of varying nationalities, at risk as they tried to cover the action.

In the initial stages of the campaign, they were denied access to the special operations units operating secretly with Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As the American buildup took place, along with troops of other nations, there was greater access to these units. But casualties mounted when correspondents – traveling with troops in action or elsewhere in Afghanistan – were accosted by Taliban remnants or other armed bands.

Perhaps the most publicized casualty in the war against terrorism to date was Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl, brutally murdered by extremists in Pakistan as he sought to probe the Al Qaeda network.

Now, new platoons of journalists are deployed in coverage of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So far, according to the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), six journalists have been killed and 59 injured by gunfire or shelling.

Says the IPI: "Throughout the conflict, journalists have been subject to deliberate assassination, targeted shootings, beatings, harassment, censorship, threats, and obstruction in carrying out their profession."

The attacks have come from a number of different Israeli and Palestinian groups, including soldiers, police, settlers and civilians. "At least 81 percent of the violations against press freedom were perpetrated by Israelis," charges IPI, "and the overwhelming majority of targeted journalists have been of Palestinian origin."

War reporting is not the only cause of death for journalists. An investigative reporter in China who had been writing about criminal gangs with links to corrupt politicians was found in a ditch with his throat cut.

A radio reporter in Guatemala who had been threatened for broadcasting stories about corruption was shot five times outside his home. A Russian editor whose newspaper had often criticized local officials was found shot in the back. In Northern Ireland, an investigative journalist with a Dublin newspaper was shot dead while walking home, apparently the victim of a paramilitary reprisal.

If there is a glimmer of hope, it is that press freedom throughout the world is holding its own. In fact, there were some slender gains last year, according to the annual survey of press freedom just released by the respected New York-based organization Freedom House. A number of countries made significant improvements, while only three – Mongolia, Bangladesh, and Haiti – slipped backward in the area of press freedom, as judged by Freedom House standards. Muslim countries topped the list of countries lacking a free press.

Where progress was made, it was often, says Freedom House, a result of changes in regime, ushered in at least in part by the work of independent journalists. And may I add "brave"?

The mounting death toll among journalists this year is evidence that the defense and extension of press freedom often comes at great price.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor, and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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