Protecting Journalists

GETTING a story right can be difficult for journalists under the best of circumstances. Getting a story at all is hard - and often life-threatening - for reporters in places where press freedoms are under siege, or nonexistent.

Each year the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issues a survey of journalistic conditions throughout the world. It's a jarring reality check for both writers and readers fortunate enough to have relatively unfettered access to news and information.

The committee's just-released 1995 overview underscores the vigilance required at a time of wrenching change and incipient democratization. There were some positive notes - the tenacity of South Korean journalists in exposing past corruption, the stirring of an independent press in Cuba, the striking down of "licensing" for journalists in Costa Rica.

But ominous notes predominate. The killing of journalists in Algeria was unabated - 24 perished last year, mostly at the hands of antigovernment extremists. Turkey has the highest total of jailed reporters and editors, 51, most of them detained for taking a line other than the government's in covering the Kurdish rebellion. Nigeria's military regime continued its "systematic assault on the press," as CPJ editors put it. In Tajikistan, 29 journalists were murdered. Mob and drug-cartel assassins targeted newsmen and women in Russia and Colombia. The list goes on and on.

While native writers and broadcasters are often most at risk, foreign correspondents and news organization feel the brunt of repression too. BBC offices were ransacked in Islamabad, Pakistan, and in neighboring Kashmir. The story of Monitor reporter David Rohde, detained while tracking down mass graves in Serb-held Bosnia, is the subject of a special report in the CPJ volume.

The point is less journalistic heroism than the human need to know in order to reform. Progress hinges on an accurate assessment of what's going on in halls of government or in isolated villages. With varying degrees of skill and objectivity, journalists try to cast light where it's not wanted. Their work may never be universally admired, but it is universally needed and deserves unstinting protection.

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