Journalist Death Toll Doubles in 2003

A total of 36 journalists were killed as a direct result of their work during 2003, almost double the death toll of 19 in 2002, according to the latest in an annual series of reports on ‘Attacks on the Press’ released today by the New York-based watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The increase was due primarily to the war in Iraq, where 13 journalists died as a result of hostile acts–more than one-third of the total according to the report–which also reported that 136 journalists were imprisoned during the year.

Of the 13 killed in Iraq, at least four were killed by U.S. fire, notably in the April 8 shelling of Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel and the air strike that hit Baghdad office of the Al-Jazeera cable television channel.

In other cases, war correspondents in Iraq were killed as a result of insurgent bombings of particular targets, including restaurants and hotels, although one Iraqi newspaper editor, Ahmed Shawkat, was gunned down in his office in October–presumably for his outspokenness on any of a number of controversial issues.

Journalists in Iraq also suffered robberies while traveling and harassment, including by U.S. and coalition forces, which often gave them the feeling of being "targets," according to CPJ’s director, Ann Cooper. "By year’s end," she wrote in a forward to the 302-page book, "even the most seasoned war correspondents were calling Iraq the most dangerous assignment they had ever covered."

With 39 journalists in prison in 2003, China was the leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row.

But CPJ also singled out Cuba for criticism, in connection with its crackdown against dissidents and independent media in March and April 2003. A total of 29 journalists–about one-third of the Caribbean island’s independent press corps–were arrested and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 14 to 27 years.

The report, which covers in detail incidents of killings, attacks, imprisonments, intimidation and harassment of journalists in each country, is the most comprehensive compilation of its kind.

After Iraq, the most dangerous place for journalists to work in 2003 was the Philippines, where at least five journalists were killed for their reporting. (A sixth murder is still being investigated.) The violence, says the report, was "not a temporary aberration; it has become the normal state of affairs, year after year." While the Philippine media have been among the freest in the developing world since democracy was restored in 1986, more than 40 journalists there have been slain.

Most of those murdered in the Philippines were provincial radio journalists, frequently on the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao, and often in retaliation for outspoken criticism of local political leaders. Of the five killed in 2003, the most famous was Juan "Jun" Pala, a nationally known radio commentator in Davao City, who was gunned down near his home in September. He had survived two previous assassination attempts.

Colombia, which has long ranked as among the most deadly countries for CPJ, experienced four confirmed killings of journalists in retaliation for their work and three more for which the motive has yet to be confirmed. Almost all of the victims were radio reporters or commentators with records of criticizing local officials for corruption or human rights abuses. In addition, more than 40 journalists received death threats during the year; six of them felt it necessary to flee the country.

Two killings which, apart from the deaths in Iraq, received the most international news coverage in 2003 took place in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, where three reporters were killed in 2002. Nazih Darwazeh, a cameraman for Associated Press Television News was shot and killed by Israeli forces while filming clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops in Nablus last April. In May, James Miller, a British freelance film cameraman director, was killed by a single shot while his crew approached a group of Israeli armored personnel carriers in Gaza at night. In both cases, the Israeli Defense Force launched investigations but has not yet released its conclusions.

Another killing that gained worldwide publicity was the apparent beating death in custody of Iranian-Canadian Zahra Kazemi. She was detained by security forces while taking photographs of the families of prisoners outside Teheran’s Evin Prison and held for two weeks before being taken to a hospital in a coma. Several intelligence officials were taken into custody after strong diplomatic protests by Ottawa, but, by the end of the year, all but one had been released.

Two journalists were killed in Brazil during the year, while one each was killed in Cambodia, Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia (where the victim was the second editor-in-chief of the independent Togliatti daily, ‘Tolyatinskoye Obozreniye,’ in 18 months, and Somalia, according to the report.

Besides China and Cuba, countries with large numberd of journalists in prison included Eritrea (17), Burma (10), Vietnam (9), Uzbekistan and Turkey (5 each), Pakistan (4), and Nepal and Iran (3 each).

Among other notable developments of 2003, the report cited a Chilean court’s reversal of the conviction and five-year sentence of a television commentator on charges of "disrespect" for calling the country’s judges "immoral, cowardly, and corrupt" for not compensating a woman who had been wrongly imprisoned; and the continuing practice by Vietnam’s authorities of holding Internet service providers and cybercafe owners legally responsible if their clients access banned information online.

The report also noted the revocation of the credentials of two reporters from Al-Jazeera by the New York Stock Exchange several days after the Qatar-based network broadcast footage of U.S. prisoners of war and the bodies of dead U.S. soldiers. It said the action was designed to reduce the number of journalists on the exchange’s floor for security reasons and to give priority to reporters from financial networks. After protests by CPJ and other groups, the credentials were restored.

Overall, according to Cooper, the pursuit of the "war on terror" continued to have repercussions on journalists throughout the world as leaders used it to crack down or intimidate against independent or anti-government reporters and to defend themselves against Western charges that they were violating freedom of the press.

(One World)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.