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Steady Death Toll Reflects Ongoing Worldwide Assault on Journalists

World Press Freedom Day reminds us that reliable information comes at a cost.

World Press Freedom Day reminds us that reliable information comes at a cost. (Photo: Alex Steffler; Edited: LW / TO)

As those in the profession broadly defined as “media” once again mark World Press Freedom Day, it is worth recalling the risks incurred by many journalists throughout the world in trying to keep the public informed.

At its best, journalism involves the sort of work that has earned it the sobriquet of the first draft of history. As such, it is the sine qua non for any sort of democratically oriented system of government; for without reliable information, citizens cannot competently participate in the decision-making that creates and sustains the framework within which they carry on their lives.

In an era when we are inundated with information presumed to be essential, one might bear in mind George Orwell’s observation: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.”

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” — George Orwell

Nowhere is this more evident than in conflict zones, for those areas where journalists are most at risk usually involve armed conflict, and the risk is not simply from being caught in the crossfire.

The April 8, 2003, now-notorious firing on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, a known media center, while still considered “controversial” by some, had all the signs of a planned attack by the United States occupation forces. Given the endless official drivel about surgical targeting and mastery of “intelligence” at all levels, coupled with the military’s condemnation of non-embedded reporting, the military’s claim that the soldiers thought that they were firing on enemy combatants is absurd. The bombing of Al Jazeera’s headquarters in the same city at almost the same time also comes to mind, for the same military’s hostility toward it was known and openly declared.

Four years earlier, the United States had bombed a Serbian television building during its 78-day bombing campaign in that country.

And even further back, in 1991, before and during the assault on Iraq, journalists based in Geneva (or passing through on their way to the Middle East) were repeatedly warned by, among others, the representatives of the humanitarian aid agencies that all journalists in that region without United States military accreditation risked being arrested and held until the end of hostilities if discovered by the United States military police, even if they were found in “neutral” countries such as Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.

In June 2004, a group of journalists from throughout the world based in Geneva founded the Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) to work for the creation of an internationally recognized emblem for media representatives in conflict zones, similar to the Red Cross/Red Crescent. Its launch was enthusiastically supported by Luis Alfonso de Alba Góngora, the Mexican ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and later chair of the new Human Rights Council.

As a founding member of the PEC, still sitting on its executive committee, this journalist, over the years, has been well positioned to monitor the unrelenting increase in the risks faced by those reporting from conflict zones. This increase, which shows no signs of abating — on the contrary — has profoundly influenced the emblem project.

In 2007, the PEC presented a working draft, still under discussion, of an international convention to implement the creation of such an emblem. Recognition of the emblem by any party does not mean obligation to use it, for in many circumstances its use would turn journalists into targets. Nonetheless, its existence would confer on media representatives an internationally recognized neutral status similar to that of humanitarian aid workers.

Another provision of the proposed convention has turned out to be highly controversial, although criticism — almost entirely from governments — has been almost completely off the record. It involves the setting up of an independent, impartial commission to investigate deaths and injuries of journalists, similar to the special investigative commissions used by the United Nations Human Rights Council. The findings of the commission would be published and universally available.

This has several obvious advantages — all disadvantages for those who target journalists:

1. The conclusions of such a commission’s inquiries could be crucial in establishing exactly what happened, a matter of immense importance not least for next of kin if the journalist is known or presumed dead but there is no corpse.

2. Such findings would serve as a reliable record in demands for compensation.

3. The findings would be an invaluable arm in the fight against impunity because they could be used in establishing guilt and making prosecutions possible.

4. Regardless of whether guilty parties, particularly governments (and here a certain superpower comes to mind) accept the findings, they would stand as an impartial expert record, similar to the reports of the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The tally of dead journalists kept by the Press Emblem Campaign has documented the increasing assaults on the profession.

Over the years, the tally of dead journalists kept by the PEC has documented the increasing assaults on the profession. Hence, on the occasion of this year’s World Press Freedom Day, the PEC has launched a new security index. Instead of focusing on threats to journalists in their individual circumstances, it attempts to evaluate the risk involved in working in specific countries. The rating runs from 0 to 5: 0 being no risk, and 5 constituting an overall recommendation to avoid the country at all costs.

The PEC’s press release elaborates on this:

In this initial ranking, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen have the highest level of danger, 5 out of 5. Mexico comes in with 4 (some regions of the country are decidedly less dangerous than others), along with Afghanistan, Mali, Honduras and Pakistan (like Mexico, depending on where, the tribal areas indisputably being the most dangerous). Brazil and the Philippines are ranked 3, as well as Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Guatemala and South Sudan. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (West Bank and Gaza) are also ranked at level 3. India, Bangladesh, Sudan and Egypt are ranked at level 2, along with Turkey (owing to its closeness to Syria), Russia and Ukraine (the conflict continues), Azerbaijan, Colombia, Ecuador, Iran and Venezuela.

The statement goes on to clarify: “Needless to say, the situation can change fast. The index is based on a six-month period and will be published twice a year, to coincide with World Press Freedom Day on 3 May and the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists on 2 November.”

So far this year, 40 journalists have been felled while practicing their profession. This follows the same rhythm of deaths as last year at this time, amounting to roughly 2.5 journalists per week. The total last year was 135.

Blaise Lempen, the PEC’s secretary-general, has been vociferous in his denunciation of the impunity accompanying the overwhelming majority of deaths, pointing out that these days, the two worst countries by far for this are Mexico and Honduras.

On a less grim note, the PEC statement adds: “In Brazil and Colombia, on the other hand, fragile progress has been made, and those responsible have been convicted by the courts. However, several journalists have been injured in other attacks in recent months in Brazil.”

In a different but related vein, in Yemen, as opposed to outright murder, many journalists have been kidnapped by the belligerents and remain — apparently — alive but in captivity.

The need has never been greater for a groundswell of public support for the media — especially the independent, non-corporate media. The absorption of most media outlets by major corporations in all countries and all languages has created another, less visible but just as great, threat to the flow of information. And it is precisely these corporate outlets that are most supportive of embedded journalism, which reflects only what the military want to the world to know.

If the advancing revolution in communications is to be translated into a citizens’ revolution for transparency and accountability, journalists must be able to do their work unimpeded, not least in the most dangerous areas where so much is at stake. World Press Freedom Day reminds us that independence and impartiality — hence reliable information — come at a cost. So far, a small but significant part of the public has shown a heartening willingness to support such journalism. May that support continue.

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