The crime of jailing journalists

ALTHOUGH the detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Gerald Seib has ended, a sad fact remains: Journalists are routinely jailed by governments around the world. According to Amnesty International, even in countries without overt government control of the news media, journalists who report on politically sensitive issues are imprisoned and ill treated. Their ``crimes''? Asking the ``wrong'' questions, or disseminating the ``wrong'' information.

The ``wrong'' questions and information often concern human rights. Journalists search out information on those whose rights are denied; governments use any means necessary to stop them. Frequently, journalists find themselves victims of the very abuses they report.

In August 1984, Jaime Ayala Sulca, a 22-year-old reporter for the Peruvian newspaper La Republica, ``disappeared'' after apparently having been taken into police custody. Ayala Sulca was last seen entering a regional security headquarters and detention center. He had gone to inquire into the killing of six leaders of the Presbyterian Church at Calqui and to protest a police raid on his home. He was never seen again.

On April 10, 1981, Xu Wenli of the People's Republic of China was arrested because of his involvement with two unofficial journals, Contemporary Matters and Humanity. Both journals had been published in defiance of a March 1979 government ban.

Xu Wenli had also been chief editor of April 5th Tribune, one of the many unofficial journals that appeared during China's ``democracy movement,'' which began in late 1978. In early 1980, government pressure forced April 5th Tribune to cease publication. On June 8, 1982, Xu was found guilty of organizing a ``counter-revolutionary clique.''

Sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment, he remains in solitary confinement. He is kept in a windowless cell; sole access is through a trapdoor in the ceiling.

Jonathan Kuntambila, Sandy Kuwale, and Paul Akomenji were arrested March 1, 1985, in the African nation of Malawi after the Daily Times published a news article that apparently displeased the government. Mr. Kuntambila was chief editor of the Times, Malawi's only daily newspaper. Mr. Kuwale and Mr. Akomenji were editors with the Malawi News Agency.

The three were arrested after Kuntambila published a news-agency report quoting the country's official hostess during a conference on women and development as saying, ``Man cannot do without woman.'' The official hostess later denied making the remark, although an official United Nations transcript of the speech contained it. The remark was evidently deemed offensive by Malawi's Life-President, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda, who is a bachelor. All three journalists were released 13 months later, uncharged.

These three nations, and many like them, profess to respect and support individual human rights and freedom of expression - while they crush those who dare to believe these claims. No political ideology or system of government is a guarantee that human rights will be protected.

From Chile to Vietnam, Israel to the Soviet Union, journalists are imprisoned for merely doing their job. In Orwellian fashion, ideas are construed by many nations as crimes. Sympathy expressed for a minority group can be labeled an ``attempt to divide the nation''; criticism of the government is branded ``subversion'' or ``antistate propaganda.''

The release of Gerald Seib reaffirms that government pressure coupled with international attention can free those unjustly imprisoned. The greatest boon to governments that oppress their citizens is worldwide indifference. Until governments realize that human rights violations cannot go unnoticed, they will continue to imprison, torture, and kill journalists - or anyone else they choose.

Josh Sugarmann is a free-lance writer in New York.

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