by William A. Orme, Jr.
In late 1996, editor Ocak Isik Yurtçu sent a letter to the Committee to Protect Journalists from what he called "the deep darkness" of his Istanbul prison cell. Writing in formal, elegant Turkish, he explained that he wanted to thank us for mounting an international campaign for his release.
We should be thanking him. Journalists like Yurtçu take most of the risks for the rest of us. To work in his defense is a matter of moral and collegial obligation.
But fighting to keep good journalists out of jail is also a practical necessity in today's news business. In an increasingly interdependent world, we all need the best local reporters and editors to keep us informed about countries like Turkey-and Indonesia and Russia and Mexico and Nigeria and scores of other strategically critical places around the world.
Technology is fast making traditional means of censorship obsolete. The news today almost always gets out, and gets back to the places it matters most, whether via fax or satellite or e-mail or old-fashioned newsprint. And it is for this very reason that journalists are increasingly at risk. While electronic information is hard to control, the individual newsgatherer is visible and vulnerable. Silencing a journalist by imprisonment or assassination usually has the intended chilling effect on other reporters and news organizations. That is why an organization like CPJ is more necessary than ever: The ranks of independent journalists in dangerous and repressive countries are growing daily, and each is a potential target.
When Yurtçu was sentenced to a 15-year jail term in 1995, few outside Turkey paid much notice. The prosecution of Turkish journalists had long since become depressingly routine, and no Turkish newspaper had suffered more systematic harassment than Yurtçu's Ozgur Gundem, the largest-circulation daily aimed at the country's Kurdish minority. As he noted in his letter, he was punished-like so many of his colleagues-because "I tried to learn the truth and relay this truth to inform the public: in other words, to do my job."
Our job at CPJ is to inform the public about stories like Yurtçu's-and to do whatever we can to get him and others like him out of jail. In 1996 we brought attention to his case by honoring Yurtçu with an International Press Freedom Award, presented in absentia at our annual New York awards ceremony by CPJ board member Terry Anderson. We asked scores of America's most prominent journalists to sign personal appeals to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan calling for Yurtçu's release. This campaign on Yurtçu's behalf received wide coverage not just in the international press, but in the daily papers of Istanbul and Ankara. And we began a series of meetings with Turkish officials to underline our continuing concern about Yurtçu's imprisonment.
Yurtçu was chosen for the International Press Freedom Award because of his outstanding professional accomplishments, his courage, and his sacrifices. He was also selected because his case is emblematic of the accelerating legal harassment of all independent Turkish journalists. At the close of 1996, as confirmed by information compiled by CPJ and published here for the first time, Turkey was holding a record 78 journalists in jail-more than four times as many as any other country, and up from what was then a record 51 confirmed cases at the end of 1995 (see "Journalists in Jail,").
The aim of this book-the main goal of CPJ-is to document and direct a harsh media spotlight at such gross abuses of press freedom. Although Yurtçu's is an especially troubling case, his imprisonment is broadly representative of the hundreds of abuses of journalists and press freedoms that we chronicle here. Verifying and responding to these incidents are the staples of CPJ's daily work.
Every week, each of CPJ's five regional programs receives dozens of reports of serious press freedom violations. These typically range from violent assaults and even homicides to criminal libel actions and the introduction of restrictive new press laws. Some of our sources are in the public domain: wire services, the local press, government announcements. Most, however, are not. Around the clock, through faxes and phone calls and the Internet, a global network of journalists' associations and human rights groups circulates confidential queries and details about such cases. We depend greatly on these organizations, as many depend in turn on CPJ's sources and documentation.
Increasingly, however, journalists in trouble contact us directly. Reporters in repressive and dangerous places are more willing to turn to the outside world for support, because they have learned that they can count on effective international response. And they are now gaining the tools to do so, as the telecommunications revolution ends what had been for so many a genuine isolation.
For CPJ, as in any journalistic enterprise, tips and sources are just a start. We must corroborate independently-and quickly-the basic facts of a case. We then examine these facts through the exacting policy optic of a press freedom organization. It is not enough to establish that a photographer was jailed, an editor sued, or a reporter beaten. We have to be able to demonstrate that these abuses were a direct consequence of their profession. Before we register a public complaint, we must also have cause to believe that the intent was to obstruct or suppress their reporting. This can be very hard to prove. As a result, we invariably exclude from this annual report scores if not hundreds of attacks on journalists that may also be legitimate examples of deliberate press freedom violations. Often, though, we are also omitting incidents that were at first assumed or reported to have been press freedom violations, but which subsequent CPJ staff investigation revealed to have had other causes.
There are other deliberate omissions in this annual survey. We do not cover the advanced industrial democracies, with one partial exception: the United States. This does not signal some naive misconception that journalists do not confront serious press freedom conflicts in France or Japan or the British Isles. Yet the local press in those countries is well-equipped to fight its own battles; we direct our finite resources toward countries where journalists are most in need of international support.
In our own country we focus on a few carefully delimited areas, including the murders of American journalists-fortunately, there were none in 1996-and government policies that affect the freedom and safety of journalists abroad. We were especially alarmed by the recent legal sanctioning of recruitment by the CIA of reporters as covert intelligence agents-and intend to fight for the policy's reversal (see "Subverting Journalism: Reporters and the CIA," ). But CPJ has gladly ceded to domestically oriented journalists' groups the demanding and complex task of responding to the multiple legal challenges and other problems faced by the news business at home.
An awareness of our priorities and our limitations shapes CPJ's reporting on the rest of the world. We concentrate on places where our efforts are likely to have some constructive impact, and where we can work with local counterparts-journalists who have enough freedom to at least strive to be independent. This calculus varies from country to country and from year to year. But it also means that we consistently give rather short shrift to some of the world's worst offenders: xenophobic police states like North Korea and Iraq, and neo-feudal monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Bhutan. Ultimately, there is little for us to report in countries where reporting is a capital crime.
Even in the places where we focus our efforts, the demands of sound journalistic method circumscribe the scope of our work.
In the case of Turkey, for example, it was a major investigative undertaking simply to establish basic facts about the prosecutions and professional histories of the 78 imprisoned journalists. Assembling this list required many weeks of research by our Middle East program coordinator, Joel Campagna, and the Turkish journalists who assisted him in New York, Istanbul, and Ankara.
Similarly, it would have been impossible to track the fate and the purported legal offenses of the many journalists jailed in Ethiopia-18 by the end of 1996, 31 at the year's beginning-without on-the-ground investigations in Addis by Africa program coordinator Kakuna Kerina and CPJ board member Josh Friedman of Newsday (see "Clampdown in Addis,"). As is not uncommon in Africa, many of the Ethiopian writers and reporters were jailed without charges or any public record of their imprisonment, further complicating Kerina and Friedman's assignment.
In the course of 1996, CPJ staff experts and board members traveled to several other countries where journalists have been unjustly prosecuted. Board members Peter Arnett of CNN and Rick MacArthur of Harper's magazine joined Asia program coordinator Vikram Parekh for high-level discussions in Vietnam regarding, among other press freedom issues, the continuing imprisonment of five dissident political pamphleteers, including 1993 International Press Freedom Award recipient Doan Viet Hoat. (Vietnamese officials did not indicate any softening of their position, though the CPJ mission was their first open exchange of views on these issues with American press freedom advocates.) In Croatia, CPJ board chair Kati Marton met in Zagreb with President Franjo Tudjman to ask him to drop criminal charges against the muckraking weekly Feral Tribune, and former board chair Jim Goodale presented the newspaper's defense team a friend of the court brief challenging the seditious libel laws under which they were being tried. (Thanks to international pressure, the case was eventually dropped.) And Latin America program coordinator Suzanne Bilello traveled to Cuba to demonstrate CPJ's support for a small group of independent journalists who are routinely jailed for days and weeks in a sustained official campaign of intimidation. (None of these Cuban reporters, thankfully, is on our year-end 1996 list; the last journalist serving a long prison term was released in 1995 following a CPJ campaign on his behalf.)
There are many other journalists who had been detained for weeks or months during 1996 whose cases do not appear in our year-end tabulation of imprisoned journalists. The purpose of the annual Dec. 31 list is, first, to offer a consistent comparative snapshot of the imprisonment of journalists around the world, a portrait which includes all the profession's known long-term prisoners, and, second, to provide a documented point of departure for campaigns by CPJ and others on these prisoners' behalf. There are undoubtedly some journalists in jail about whom we are unaware, as there are others whose detention we have been unable to verify.
The same disclaimer applies to other categories of press freedom abuse charted in this volume: censorship, legal harassment, physical assault, even assassinations. Not every case is verifiable: this volume is meant to chronicle what CPJ was able to do and to document between January and December.
This book is not intended, then, to be an encyclopedic compendium of all major press freedom violations in the world in 1996. It should be read instead as a record of CPJ's work throughout that year. As such, it is deliberately and necessarily an understatement of the magnitude of the problem.
Lacunae and caveats notwithstanding, we believe-we proudly assert-that this is still the most thorough and carefully researched report of its kind. CPJ's staff investigated and documented every one of the incidents chronicled here. In most of these cases, CPJ took some immediate action in response, ranging from the mass distribution of formal letters of condemnation to orchestrating international protest campaigns to sending emissaries to raise these issues directly with government officials. Such on-site investigations further strengthen CPJ's working relationship with local reporters, and thus our knowledge of local journalism issues, while putting us in direct contact with the officials responsible for investigating abuses or for imposing troublesome press policies. It is this trademark combination of hands-on research and advocacy work that informs CPJ's brief but authoritative reports on each of the more than one hundred countries we regularly cover. We are a case-driven organization, responding to press freedom problems not in the abstract, but on behalf of individual journalists facing specific threats to their livelihood, their freedom, or their safety.
The Yurtçu case illuminates other issues we grapple with daily-issues of priorities, strategies, and responsibilities. On which countries should CPJ concentrate its finite energies-totalitarian states that are objectively the worst offenders, or the emerging democracies that veer uneasily between openness and authoritarianism? Which abuses deserve our closest attention, or our severest condemnation: assassinations by insurgents or criminals who live in defiance of the rule of law, or persecution by governments that are sworn to uphold legal guarantees of basic human rights?
The imprisonment of journalists is one objective indicator of a government's commitment to press freedom. By that particular measure, Turkey was the worst persecutor of journalists in the world last year. Yet even journalists sympathetic to CPJ's work might question whether it is fair to single out Turkey for such severe criticism. After all, Turkey's immediate neighbors-Syria, Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan-are hardly paragons of press freedom. But Turkey, as a self-described democracy, asks to be held to a higher standard. This is the legitimate expectation of Turkey's best journalists. As an organization of independent journalists defending other independent journalists, we are most effective-and most needed-in countries where there are real working reporters and news organizations trying to do their jobs. In Iraq, by contrast, there is almost nobody for CPJ to defend.
Think Locally, Act Globally
There is another relevant consideration. Despite Turkey's status as the principal jailer of journalists, it remains a leading U.S. ally and aid recipient. In fact, two of the three countries that follow Turkey in the list of imprisoned journalists-Ethiopia, with 18 in jail, and Kuwait with 15-are also seen as solid U.S. allies. This should be a point of shame, but it is also potentially CPJ's most important point of pressure.
We have hundreds of members on all continents, and a diverse and well-traveled staff with friends and relatives around the globe. But as an organization financed largely by U.S. news organizations and directed by a board of leading U.S. journalists, CPJ is a fundamentally American institution with an international brief.
Our self-assigned mandate exposes us to charges of cultural imperialism, of acting on the arrogant supposition that American journalistic standards and practices are appropriate for the rest of the world. We are accused of imposing alien "Western" or even peculiarly "Anglo-Saxon" values on societies that purportedly do not share our views of free speech and individual liberties. Yet the loudest and bitterest complaints about the imprisonment of Ocak Is¸ik Yurtçu came from Yurtçu's own Turkish colleagues, and we responded to their request for support. It is not CPJ's board of directors but the brave and vibrant community of reporters and editors in Hong Kong that has been most vociferous in calling upon Beijing to respect their local tradition of freedom of the press when China assumes sovereignty in the summer of 1997. And in Cuba, where the government has long contended that independent journalism is inherently subversive if not treasonous, it is not visiting American correspondents who risk jail and worse by daring to report uncensored news, but the local reporters who have refused as a matter of principle to work further for state-owned media.
Our formal letters of protest to foreign governments cite not the First Amendment, but the marvelously inclusive Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees all citizens of all founding members of the United Nations the right "to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Drafted a half-century ago, Article 19 even anticipated the Internet.
But we are ultimately guided by the ethos of American journalism, which, in its strict and constitutionally protected separation from government, is seen as a model by news professionals around the world. There are certain principles we uphold as universal goals which may be implicit in the sweeping promise of Article 19, but which have become explicit in U.S. law. Among them, to choose one important example, is the idea that elected officials should have no more protection from critical press coverage-and ideally much less-than that of any other citizen. Yet in many new self-described democracies it is a criminal act to "insult" the integrity or capacity of the president or prime minister. Another peculiarly American notion we seek to export is that the truth-the unchallenged facts of the matter-should be an ironclad defense against libel. Like most American journalists, we believe the best press law is no press law: The Jeffersonian principle that the government which governs least governs best strikes us as universally applicable at least in the arena of official regulation of the news media.
And, finally, in an era when U.S. power is again an incontrovertible fact, CPJ's ability to influence American opinion, and ultimately American policy, may be our biggest contribution to our colleagues abroad.
As an organization, CPJ is something of a hybrid. We are journalists acting on behalf of other journalists. As journalists, we must be careful with the facts, and careful to distance ourselves from political factions and ideologies. (That is one reason we refuse to accept government funds-a position seen as another aspect of CPJ's peculiarly American character.) But we are also an advocacy organization-taking positions forcefully and publicly in a way that most journalists ordinarily would not and often should not. On matters of philosophy, we make no pretense at objectivity: We oppose all forms of censorship, all attempts to harass or coerce or co-opt journalists in an attempt to control the news. And we reflexively prefer private media to state-run news organizations, NPR and the BBC notwithstanding. All this is also seen as a quintessentially American bias.
We are very much part of the human rights community in the United States as well as internationally. Freedom of expression is among the most fundamental of human rights: We take seriously our responsibility to defend not just journalists, but the public at large. And of the journalists we defend many are in trouble precisely because of their reporting about human rights violations. But what distinguishes us from the human rights world is that we are ultimately a professional organization, colleagues defending colleagues.
Killing the Messenger
The hard news generated by this annual report in past years has too often been that more journalists than ever had been killed in the line of duty. There were 72 documented cases in 1994, up from 64 in 1993 and exceeding the previous record toll of 66 in 1991. In 1995, however, with 57 documented cases (51 murders; six accidental deaths), the death toll dropped significantly. In 1996 this downward trend continued, with 26 documented murders, the lowest number CPJ has recorded in a decade, and just one accidental death.
Still, it can hardly be a source of comfort that we were able to document 26 cases of journalists who were murdered last year simply because of their work as journalists. In another eight homicides in 1996 we suspect but cannot clearly establish that causal link.
Woven into these statistics are two disturbing patterns: the continuing targeting of journalists by warring factions in Algeria and Chechnya and Tajikistan, and the increasing willingness of criminal gangs from East Asia to South America and even Western Europe to dispatch hit men to silence troublesome reporters. The contract murder in June of Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin, just six months after she received a CPJ International Press Freedom Award, had an especially profound personal impact on our board and staff, as well as on the many other American journalists who met her at our December 1995 awards ceremony.
But the sharp drop in the total number of documented homicides of journalists is a welcome and not coincidental development. In the 1990s the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists have been Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia, and Tajikistan-all places where warring factions deliberately targeted reporters for assassination under the cover of vicious civil wars.
Algeria, where seven journalists were killed, remains a horrific and dangerous place, with reporters working and living in bunker-like isolation, in many cases under the vigilance of military guards, who are themselves no friends of the press. But tightened security for the mainstream press has saved lives; in addition, many journalists who could not arrange or tolerate high-security quarters have fled into exile. Nevertheless, the number of deaths to date remains shocking: at least 59 murdered in four years, mostly by Islamist rebels, the largest death toll for journalists in any country since the so-called dirty war of Argentina in the late 1970s.
For the past two years, no journalists have been killed in Bosnia and Croatia, where at least 45 were murdered or killed in crossfire earlier in the decade. The Dayton Peace Accords, while usually honored only in the breach in respect to their press freedom guarantees, have succeeded in stopping the bloodshed. In Tajikistan, where there was one death last year but 29 since the outbreak of civil war in 1992, there are few real journalists left for either side to persecute: most have fled, and all local media is under direct state control.
It would be foolhardy to predict any permanence to the peace in the former Yugoslavia, or to evince confidence in the prospects for détente in Tajikistan. But what could conceivably prove a lasting trend is the relative rarity of official death-squad targeting of reporters, of the kind that was endemic in Central America in the 1980s and adopted by Tajiks and Croats and Bosnian Serbs in the 1990s. The slow strengthening of democracy in the developing world, coupled with pressure for the punishment of war crimes, may be putting some of these clandestine assassination teams out of business.
Despite the drop in the homicide rate, one disturbing fact remains un- changed: Those who kill journalists act in most instances with utter impunity. Murderers of journalists in Moscow or Bogota can safely assume they will never be pursued, much less arrested. And when journalists and everyone else are inured to the corruption or incompetence of local criminal justice systems, there is rarely much pressure for official accountability.
The popular outcry following the Guerin murder was an extraordinary exception to this rule. There was no precedent for such an assassination in the Republic of Ireland, and outraged citizens saw it as a direct and dangerous attack on their own right to be informed. They forced the government to go after Guerin's killers with all the resources at its disposal. They demanded legal reforms making it easier to nail criminal bosses for conspiracy and tax fraud. And Irish newspapers found the courage to name names: No longer could these accused killers and their drug-running associates hide behind the anonymity of nicknames and other elliptical references that had been used to forestall possible libel action (see special report by Michael Foley,).
"Veronica's murder brought about changes in the country," her mother, Bernadette Guerin, noted in a letter to CPJ. "I wonder if these changes will last."
They may, because her daughter's murder was anomalous in another important respect: There was no doubt about how or why she died. Most journalists are assassinated in places where violence is commonplace, investigations are cursory, and prosecutions are rare. And motive is often unclear: Journalists are by no means the only civilians who have been targeted by warlords in Algeria or Bosnia or Tajikistan.
Fundamentally, though, the murder of Veronica Guerin was like all assassinations of journalists: It was yet another example of the most brutal and final form of censorship. In the case of Ocak Is¸ik Yurtçu, we can hold out hope for his release from prison. To honor Veronica Guerin's memory, we can only hope that her killers did not succeed in deterring other reporters from pursuing stories that need to be told.
"Veronica has been silenced," Bernadette Guerin wrote, underlining the words in her careful hand. "I pray that her silence will give voice, good and loud to all other good men and women who continue to expose evil and corruption in our world."
William A. Orme, Jr. is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Before joining CPJ in 1993, he covered Latin America for 15 years as a magazine editor and correspondent for The Washington Post, The Economist, and other publications. He is the author of Understanding NAFTA: Mexico, Free Trade and the New North America (University of Texas Press, 1996), and the editor of A Culture of Collusion: An Inside Look at the Mexican Press (University of Miami North-South Center Press, 1997).
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