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Around the world: A regional look at the state of press freedom in 1995

Africa
  • For the third consecutive year, Ethiopia held more journalists in jail--31 at year's end--than any other country in Africa. Most were detained without charges.
  • Rwanda and Burundi again proved to be among the most dangerous places on the continent for journalists to work, as local and foreign reporters were threatened and harassed by government security forces and armed insurgents.

Gen. Sani Abacha escalated his all-out war on Nigeria's independent press, as exemplified by the secret trial and conviction in July of four journalists for their coverage of an abortive coup plot.

  • Upcoming elections in several countries, including Ivory Coast (Cote d'Ivoire), Ethiopia and Chad, proved reason enough for governments to impose greater restrictions--if not all-out crackdowns--on the media.
  • Constitutional guarantees of press freedom failed to keep journalists in Kenya, Zimbabwe and Zambia from being sent to jail for sedition, libel and defamation. In Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the Gambia, military leaders overrode court rulings and suppressed unfavorable press coverage with executive decrees.

The Americas

  • Attacks against journalists by drug cartels and other criminal organizations-- many of them protected by elements of the local police and military--were an escalating problem in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, Brazil and Paraguay.
  • The democratically elected leaders of Argentina, Chile and Peru introduced legislation restricting press freedoms; in Argentina and Chile, the initiatives were withdrawn following strong local and international media reactions.
  • With the June release from prison of dissident journalist Yndamiro Restano, Cuba appeared to be softening its hostility toward independent local journalists. But in the second half of 1995, Cuba's fledgling nongovernmental news agencies were relentlessly harassed by state security forces.
  • In Costa Rica, the Supreme Court declared the licensing of journalists unconstitutional, setting a possible precedent for other Latin American countries where the Costa Rican licensing system has been adopted or proposed.

Asia

  • China again jailed two of its most prominent dissident journalists, Wei Jingsheng and Chen Ziming, bringing the total number of journalists in jail to 20. Beijing also ordered the closure of two provincial TV stations for broadcasting politically objectionable material.
  • Indonesia accelerated its crackdown on the independent press, imprisoning Ahmad Taufik, the leader of the country's only independent journalists union. Taufik, a winner of CPJ's 1995 International Press Freedom Award, had his sentence increased on appeal and is now serving out his three-year sentence in prison.
  • Criminal libel charges threatened the survival of several newspapers in Cambodia, where a new press law allows authorities to shut down newspapers for 30 days and bans news reports that affect "national security and political stability."
  • Two of East Asia's emerging democracies, Taiwan and South Korea, showed notable press freedom gains in 1995. Taiwan licensed the country's first private, pro-opposition television station, and South Korea's press called former and current political leaders to account in a mushrooming corruption scandal.
  • Press freedom conditions deteriorated alarmingly in Pakistan, with a sharp increase in violent attacks on the media, police harassment, newspaper bans and defamation suits.
  • In Sri Lanka, the People's Alliance government censored coverage of the war with Tamil separatists, introducing regulations three weeks before a major counterinsurgency offensive that required journalists to clear all war reports with the Media Ministry.

Central Europe And The Republics of the Former Soviet Union

  • In Russia, the government's continuing failure to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the murders of seven journalists had a chilling effect on reporting about organized crime and official corruption.
  • In Tajikistan, the execution-style murder of a BBC Persian Service bureau chief was a chilling reminder of the deadly campaign begun in 1992 against independent and opposition journalists, which left 27 dead.
  • Governments tightened controls over all news media in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Azerbaijan and other nations of the Caucasus region, prior censorship was often employed to suppress independent reporting.
  • Journalists in Bosnia faced a high risk of being killed deliberately by snipers or accidentally by cross fire and land mines. The taking of journalists as hostages became a new method of retaliation against the international press by Bosnian Serb militias.

Middle East and North Africa

  • The shocking assassination death toll in Algeria increased by 24, accounting for more than half of all murders of journalists documented by CPJ in 1995.
  • Turkey continued to jail more reporters and editors than any other country, with 51 journalists in prison at year's end.
  • Reporters in Egypt faced new restrictions as Law 93 of 1995--dubbed the "Press Assassination Law"--imposed steep fines and long prison terms for loosely defined libel offenses.
  • In areas now under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, journalists were hit with arbitrary detention orders and newspapers were forced to suspend publication.
  • With the exception of Kuwait, independent news gathering remained strictly prohibited in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
  • Authoritarian regimes in Syria, Iraq and Libya also continued to repress all forms of free expression, while Tunisia kept independent journalists from working in local media.

Firsthand look at challenges facing reporters in Algeria, the PNA, Russia, Nigeria and Bosnia

Excerpts from CPJ's 1995 worldwide survey


ALGERIA: The brutal campaign of assassination against Algerian reporters has been difficult to stop in part because local journalists failed to join together and fight for legal protections when the government liberalized press controls in 1989, says editor Sélima Ghezali in her probing essay, "Algerian Journalism's Original Sin."

"The weakness of the Algerian press and the divisiveness within it have had severe repercussions. Journalists are unable to effectively counter government repression and murderous attacks by radicals. Response to the arrest of Djamel Fahassi, a journalist with Alger Chaîne III, the state-owned French-language radio station, is a case in point. Fahassi had contributed regularly to Islamist newspapers and, for this, he was arrested in 1992 and sent to a detention camp in the south. He was released later that year only to be abducted in May 1995 by security forces. The government has denied holding him in custody. The Algerian Journalists Association did not protest his arrest. His family and my newspaper, La Nation, tried to get some support for him. But after La Nation published several articles on his case, the pro-government newspaper Horizons ran a story claiming that Fahassi was well and vacationing abroad. No source was cited, of course. He is still missing."


RUSSIA: Russian journalists are being murdered in record numbers, but they can expect little or no protection from their government. That is the central conclusion of a special report by David Satter, a CPJ staff expert. Satter wrote about his fact-finding mission to Moscow to investigate seven unsolved killings of local journalists and shows how the Yeltsin administration has failed even to investigate most of these cases.

"Despite the fact that a number of the murdered journalists have been national celebrities, there has been little effort to bring the perpetrators to justice. Instead, after a journalist is murdered, an investigation begins, sometimes with considerable fanfare, and the effort then fades amid signs that investigators are being hampered by interference at a high official level.

"Presently, nearly all legitimate private business in Russia is controlled by or forced to pay extortion money to organized crime. There are an estimated 5,000 criminal gangs, 300 mob bosses and 150 illegal organizations with international ties in the country. The prevalence of corruption and organized crime, in fact, means that investigative journalism is very necessary to Russia but little is carried out. The reason is simple, said Yevgenia Albats, a reporter for Izvestia and the author of the book A State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia, Past, Present and Future. "If you do journalism that deals with certain sensitive issues, you can easily get killed.'"


PALESTINIAN NATIONAL AUTHORITY (PNA): The growing ranks of independent Palestinian journalists insist that their job requires them to be skeptical-- a stance that the Arafat government has trouble accepting. Palestinian journalist Imad Musa analyzes the challenges facing reporters in Gaza and the West Bank.

"The phone rings at 2:30 a.m. in the home of a Gaza journalist. The man on the line identifies himself as Abu Hasan, his code name. He says he is with the Palestinian General Intelligence and wants to see the journalist now. "Why? What's wrong?' asks the bewildered journalist, but Abu Hasan won't give details. The journalist asks if this is an official summons; Abu Hasan insists that it is not. After some give-and-take, Abu Hasan agrees to wait till 9 a.m. for the "visit.'

"The journalist spends the next hour trying to remember if he did anything, the slightest thing, that could be construed as offensive to the newborn Palestinian National Authority. He taxes his brain, but he can't think of anything. So what could this "visit' be about? Would he be accused of some sort of treason for working for the Israeli and foreign press, for telling them what's going on in Gaza? Has he written anything critical lately? Could he be detained on such charges?

"Since sleep is the last thing on his mind at this point, he decides to dress and get to General Intelligence headquarters. When he gets there, Abu Hasan greets our journalist, tells him he just wanted to meet him, and that concludes the matter."


BOSNIA: In "Hunting for Mass Graves Behind Serb Lines," U.S. reporter David Rohde recounts his ordeal of being taken prisoner by Bosnian Serbs for his reporting on mass grave sites of slain Muslims. Rohde was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his investigations.

"I decided to check one last area-- a second gravel plateau--which fit the survivors' description of where the massacre took place. I pulled up onto the plateau and saw two human femurs lying on the gravel and other small objects in the distance.

"As I stepped out of the car to take a photo of them, I heard the old man--who I thought had simply walked by the dam-- shout. He was on top of the dam pointing a rifle at me. I was finished. The old man, who I then realized was guarding the dam, arrested me and called the local police. Five days of interrogation at a local police station followed, with the Bosnian Serbs convinced I was a spy sent by the Muslim-led Bosnian government or NATO to take pictures of or blow up the earthen dam....

"I carried all of my press accreditation cards, including numerous Bosnian and Croatian government ones that angered the Serbs, but they ended up being crucial to countering the espionage suspicions. Most importantly, they bought me time."

NIGERIA: Since Nigeria's independence, the local press has labored under a series of increasingly repressive military regimes. In "The Retreat of Nigeria's Press: Tactical Withdrawal or Temporary Defeat?" an exiled Nigerian journalist discusses the plight of his colleagues under Gen. Sani Abacha's rule and the prospects for the restoration of democracy and press freedom.

"While the responsibility of the media to the polity remains clear, their ability to function effectively has been seriously compromised. In the best of times, the many structural inadequacies of the system were mitigated by the intellectual brilliance and commitment of a corps of top-notch journalists that kept the national debate lively and engaging. During the last decade, however, an entire generation of journalists fled Nigeria, alongside the country's best and brightest professionals in every field....

"The rejuvenation of the press as an element of civil society is tied to the overall need to reinvent a democratic post-Abacha Nigeria, and hence a postmilitary era. The gradual erosion of democratic structures over a quarter-century of military misrule, which has cascaded into an avalanche under this present regime, is the prevailing reason for the Nigerian news media's retreat. But the media's current position may be a tactical withdrawal: The Abacha regime has been forced to announce plans for a transition to democracy, but the full implementation of those plans might be well beyond this government's control and tenure."


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