Iraq Toll Makes 2004 Worst Year for Press in a Decade

NEW YORK – Violence in Iraq claimed the lives of 23 journalists and 16 media support workers in 2004, making it the most deadly year for press freedom in a decade, according to the annual report of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

At least 22 journalists were also abducted by insurgents, and one was executed by his captors.

In a reversal of the situation in 2003, when foreign journalists accounted for all but two of the casualties, Iraqis bore the brunt of the violence last year. Of the 39 killed in the violence-wracked country, 33 were local reporters and media workers.

"With its myriad dangers and devastating death toll, Iraq remained the worst place to practice journalism throughout 2004 – and one of the most dangerous media assignments in recent history," says Ann Cooper, CPJ’s executive director, in the report’s introduction.

Cooper cited an e-mail by Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi in which the reporter complained that she "can’t drive in any thing but a full armored car, can’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside, can’t take a road trip, can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling."

Overall, 56 journalists were killed on the job. Deliberate murder was the cause of death in 36 cases; in all but nine, the killings were carried out with impunity.

"In the Middle East, the political and emotional climate is complicated by a new force: aggressive, Arabic-language satellite channels that have quickly established their place in this vastly expanded universe of news and information with their strong points of view," says Tom Brokaw, a U.S. television anchor and CPJ board member.

"They, too, have come under attack, physically and intellectually," he adds.

He notes that al-Arabiya lost three reporters and five other employees in Iraq, the highest casualty rate of any media outlet last year, even as it endured government censorship.

CPJ also criticized the United States for an "unprecedented" government assault on press freedom. In a series of cases, federal prosecutors and judges threatened U.S. journalists with prison if they refused to divulge confidential sources.

At the report’s release, U.S. television reporter Jim Taricani was serving six months of home confinement, and two other journalists awaited rulings that could send them to jail.

"This new U.S. willingness to imprison journalists has already sent a disturbing message to governments worldwide," Cooper says.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began enforcing visa regulations for foreign journalists from 27 "friendly" nations, even though other citizens from these countries don’t need visas for short visits. In 2004, at least nine foreign journalists were detained and denied entry to the United States for not having visas.

CPJ also cited "an appalling deterioration of press freedom in Russia," highlighted by the July 2004 murder of Paul Klebnikov, a U.S. citizen and the editor of Forbes Russia. His death marked the 11th contract-style killing of a journalist there since President Vladimir Putin took office in late 1999.

While three post-Soviet states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – have managed to establish a strong tradition of press freedom, others, notably those in Central Asia, are at the other extreme.

In Tajikistan, President Imomal Rakhmonov has commanded the media to work for "the protection of Tajikistan’s state and national interests," while in neighboring Turkmenistan, state television anchors are so cowed that they regularly vow on the air that their tongues will shrivel should they ever slander the country, the flag, or the president, CPJ reports.

Cyber-dissidents have also come under attack, particularly in Iran, where a vibrant culture of news blogging soon brought the ire of authorities, who arrested Internet journalists and shut down Web sites. Interestingly, a poll suggested that Iranians have come to trust the Internet more than other media.

Although eight journalists were killed in Latin America, none were murdered in Colombia in 2004, making it the first death-free year for the press corps there in more than a decade. In the last 10 years, more than 30 Colombian journalists have been killed for their work.

"The drop in the murder rate, however, does not reflect an improvement in press freedom conditions in Colombia," says Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s Americas program coordinator. "Instead, local journalists say, it reflects a culture of widespread self-censorship, especially in the country’s interior."

"In the rest of Latin America, journalists who reported on sensitive issues were literally hunted down," he adds, citing Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Brazil, and Nicaragua, where journalists were murdered in direct reprisal for their reporting.

In Haiti, a foreign correspondent was killed when gunmen opened fire on demonstrators who were calling for the prosecution of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Among the year’s more positive developments was a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are binding on more than 20 members of the Organization of American States, overturning the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of Costa Rican reporter Mauricio Herrera Ulloa.

The court found that critics of public officials must have "leeway in order for ample debate to take place on matters of public interest," a decision that legal experts said would make it much harder for Latin American governments to prosecute reporters for criminal defamation.

Journalists were also released from prison in Vietnam, China, and Cuba, including Cuban writer Manuel Vázquez Portal, whom CPJ honored in 2003 with its International Press Freedom Award, and five of his fellow Cuban journalists.

However, some of the same countries – China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Burma – still accounted for more than three-quarters of all journalists imprisoned at the end of 2004. For the sixth year running, China was the leading jailer of journalists, with 42 behind bars.

All told, 122 journalists remained in prison for practicing their profession.