Reporters at Risk

War and lawlessness increasingly turn foreign correspondents into targets

INDONESIAN soldiers marching 12 abreast had just opened fire on a crowd of East Timorese mourners when one soldier grabbed reporter Amy Goodman, threw her to the ground, and began kicking her and beating her with his rifle. Ten soldiers then surrounded Ms. Goodman and her colleague in firing-squad fashion.

''I had my passport; they kicked me in the stomach. I doubled over, but each time I could grab my breath I said, 'We're from America, we're from America!' '' says Goodman, a reporter for WBAI radio in New York.

Goodman and her colleague were let go and caught a plane out that afternoon. They brought with them first-hand accounts of the 1991 massacre of more than 250 civilians in East Timor.

Scores of reporters around the world are harassed and beaten, sometimes even assassinated, simply for doing their jobs. Local reporters are most often the targets, but foreign journalists are now more vulnerable than ever before.

''If there ever was a sense that journalists should be given some sort of immunity, it is long gone,'' says Terry Anderson, who adds that it was rare for journalists to be targets when he was snatched from his car in suburban Beirut in 1985. He was held for seven years by Islamic fundamentalists.

Mr. Anderson is now a board member of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Since January 1994, CPJ has confirmed that 110 reporters were killed on dangerous assignments or assassinated because of their work. Another 22 deaths are under investigation.

In the Bosnian conflict alone, CPJ has confirmed 41 journalist killed because of their profession since 1991. Another 12 deaths are still being investigated.

''Bosnia has been ... the most dangerous foreign conflict for journalists since Vietnam,'' says Bill Orme, CPJ's executive director. ''That is doubly remarkable given its geographic scale, the smaller number of combatants, and that it's in the heart of Europe.''

Monitor correspondent David Rohde's arrest by Bosnian Serbs Oct. 29 is typical of a growing trend in which foreign correspondents become political pawns. Mr. Rohde was released and all charges against him were dropped on Wednesday.

Rohde was the first to verify the massacre of Muslim civilians by Bosnian Serbs after the fall of the Srebrenica ''safe area'' in July. He was also the first to interview Muslim survivors of the massacre.

''I don't know if the Bosnian Serbs have articulated a larger design yet,'' says Nicholas Daniloff, who was arrested on false espionage charges in Moscow in 1986 and detained for almost two weeks. ''This may simply be a case of sweet revenge against David Rohde.''

While local journalists in dozens of developing countries have faced daily intimidation and harassment from government officials for decades, foreign reporters were generally afforded more respect.

While foreign correspondents' stories may have caused some international public-relations trouble, their reports rarely reached the local people. So the journalists were generally left to do their work, subject to occasional intimidation and harassment. Often the most danger they faced was in combat, when they were shot at along with the troops they covered.

''They were rarely singled out for attack just because they were journalists,'' says Mr. Orme. ''That's no longer the case.''

As civil strife breeds chaos, and rebel groups operate outside the rule of the international law, journalists are often viewed as proxies for foreign governments or the international community. As such, they are perceived as the enemy, fair game to be used as bargaining chips or deterrents.

''If your aim as an insurgent force is to keep a story from being reported,'' Orme says, ''shooting a foreign correspondent is a very effective way to make that happen.''

The strife in Somalia has dropped off the front pages and out of some papers altogether, in part because there is less interest in the story since the United States withdrew. But there is also the intimidation factor.

Four journalists were killed by a Somali mob in 1993. Last summer, the Associated Press's Tina Susman was held hostage for three weeks. In September, a Somali correspondent for Agence France Presse, Ali Musa Abdi, escaped from militiamen after 22 days in captivity. His arrest had been linked in a report he filed for the BBC.

''There is now an informed reluctance of editors to send reporters to places that are manifestly very dangerous - anarchic, chaotic; places where your reporters are going to be seen as potential hostages,'' Orme says.

In Algeria, fundamentalists target journalists

ALGERIA is a case in point. Islamic fundamentalists waging a civil war there have specifically targeted journalists for execution. Since 1993, more than 50 have been killed. While one French correspondent has died, most victims have been local.

''On any street corner you can be shot down,'' says Horria Saihi, an Algerian television producer and reporter who has been condemned to death by name by Islamic fundamentalists.

Ms. Saihi won acclaim as a journalist in the mid-1980s for challenging government censorship and documenting the victims of the terrorists' campaign in which tens of thousands of civilians have been tortured, maimed, and murdered.

She now is constantly on the move, sleeping in a different place each night, traveling incognito, caught between the Islamic militants and an increasingly repressive military regime.

Monday, Saihi emerged in New York to accept a Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF).

''We're not only journalists looking for pictures and action, we're also part of this struggle,'' she said afterward. ''The struggle going on in Algeria is a fight against the forces of darkness, against fascism.''

Saihi says she has no choice but to be a participant as well as an observer in Algeria's civil war. She says the fundamentalist forces that claim to have a lock on the truth want to stamp out the free press, which she sees as central to any thriving society.

She refuses to stop working, saying she has a moral responsibility to convey the events of daily life to other Algerians and the world.

''I know what awaits me in the end is a bullet in the head, but what kills me more is censorship,'' she says. ''That would be a symbolic death.''

Intimidation continues in China

FOREIGN reporters in China are routinely detained for short periods, lectured about their coverage, followed, interrupted in the midst of interviews, warned to stay away from dissidents, and followed some more.

For the local press, the situation is more grim.

Twenty-six Chinese journalists are reportedly in jail, more than any other country in Asia. And as uncertainty about the future leadership and the takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 nears, the vise appears to be tightening. Human rights groups say reporters now are facing longer sentences in prison and reeducation camps for crimes that are more vaguely defined.

Gao Yu is a highly respected economics and political writer, known for her voluminous memory, and unyielding good humor. She was arrested in October 1993, two days before she was to leave for a fellowship as a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York.

She was not heard from for a year. Last November, Chinese authorities finally admitted Ms. Gao had been charged, tried, and convicted in secret. She is now serving a six-year sentence for ''leaking state secrets.'' She is considered to have a serious heart ailment.

''One of the dangers is that one can never tell where the line is drawn, what is permissible and what is not in the eyes of the Chinese authorities,'' says Yuet-Wah (Daisy) Li, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association.

Gao, the former deputy editor in chief of the now-defunct Economic Weekly, wrote regularly for Hong Kong papers. Her offending stories focused on the prospects for China's economic reform and ironically had appeared in one of Hong Kong's pro-China papers.

Gao's arrest and conviction was interpreted as a direct message from Chinese authorities to Hong Kong journalists that, come 1997, they will be expected to play by a different set of rules.

''Freedom of the press does not just belong to the journalists, it actually belongs to the society,'' Ms. Li says. ''If a journalist gets jailed or harassed, it's damage the whole society has to bear.''

The Chinese government views Hong Kong journalists with particular sensitivity. That's because many Chinese officials use the independent Hong Kong press to anonymously express their dissent when they are unhappy with official policy.

Li and her colleagues are determined to maintain their independent status after 1997.

''We believe it's our obligation and duty to speak up for our Chinese counterparts,'' Li says, who was in New York on Monday to accept an IWMF Courage in Journalism Award on behalf of Gao. ''We're still operating in a free world. If we don't speak up for them now, who will be there to speak up for us in the future if the need arises?''

Latin America press climate improves

IN Latin America, the threats journalists face from military and guerrilla groups have decreased in recent years. But those eager to silence a probing press now include drug traffickers, vigilantes, and other paramilitary groups.

During the last year, 11 reporters were killed in the region, according to the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), compared with 18 in 1993.

The lower figure masks what IAPA press freedom coordinator Ricardo Trotti calls the largest threat to a Latin American free press: the impunity with which journalists are threatened, beaten, and killed.

None of the murders reported this year has been solved, Mr. Trotti says. And he estimates that 95 percent of the 155 killings, 1,109 known beatings, 49 kidnappings, and 205 terrorist acts against media installations his organization tallied for the last seven years have gone unpunished.

''[That] is the most horrendous intimidation of press freedom in this hemisphere,'' he says.

But many reporters, such as Jose Ruben Zamora Marro in Guatemala, refuse to be intimidated. As the founder and chief executive of the daily Siglo Veintiuno, Mr. Zamora has been shot at, sent funerary wreaths, threatened by high-level officials, and accused of drug-dealing and terrorism. .

''In recent years some newspapers like ours have opened their pages to new points of view and a much tougher line of questioning of those in power,'' Zamora says. ''But there are powerful segments of our society that are still not accustomed to accepting differences of opinion.''

Zamora's trouble started in 1991, after Siglo Veintiuno documented the involvement of several military officers, police, investigators, and judges in the murder of a prominent anthropologist.

The military chief of staff of the then-Guatemalan president even called to ''suggest'' to Zamora that the reporter on the investigation would be better off outside the country.

Last year, Zamora was shot at again after his paper pursued a financial scandal involving several top government officials.

He remains undaunted, he says, thanks to the support of many of his Guatemalan colleagues, as well as conspicuous attention from international press organizations and a few foreign officials.

The two faces of Russian intimidation

REPORTERS view the Moscow experience from two definite perspectives: before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Daniloff's experience was a notorious - but also a classic - example of the treatment the foreign press received before the collapse, when Soviet authorities carefully monitored the foreign press's every move.

In late August of 1986, Daniloff was the Moscow correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. He received a call from a Soviet acquaintance who asked to meet him in a Moscow park.

Just as the man handed Daniloff a package, Soviet security agents leaped from behind trees and bushes and photographed the scene. The package was later found to contain documents said to be top secret, and Daniloff was arrested and taken to Lefortovo prison in Moscow.

He was held for 13 days, then released in exchange for a Soviet physicist who had been arrested in the United States on espionage charges two weeks earlier.

''They grabbed a journalist accredited here to pursue some other end, like the Bosnian Serbs grabbing someone now to show that they are players,'' says Carol Williams, the Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Moscow, who was an AP correspondent at the time of the Daniloff affair.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western journalists have enjoyed greater freedom, with no further serious harassment.

Russian journalists, on the other hand, are paying a terrible price. Barely a month goes by without a local journalist being killed for one reason or another.

Last October, Dmitri Kholodov was working on a story about corruption among senior officers in the Western Army Group, the Russian forces in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Kholodov, an editor at the daily newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, had been told by an anonymous telephone caller that an attache case contained documents useful to his investigation.

Instead, it held a bomb. He was killed when he opened the booby-trapped briefcase.

Kholodov's death caused an outcry, but his killers have not been found.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.