5/03/2006

World Press Freedom Day 2006

From UNESCO:

This year's theme: Media, Development, Poverty Eradication

The correlation between media freedom and the eradication of poverty is the main theme of “World Press Freedom Day” 2006. In the context of achieving the Millennium Development Goals of 2000, aid agencies, NGOs and state actors are increasingly recognizing the multi-level impact and the central dynamic of media assistance in fostering sustainable human development and alleviating extreme poverty. Media freedom and access to information play a key role in facilitating local participation and empowerment of the poor. Freedom of expression is furthermore the core human right in a rights based approach to poverty reduction, since it serves as a trigger and catalyst for the realization of all other basic human rights.

From UN Press Service:

Statistics on the number of journalists killed, imprisoned or harassed each year were important barometers for press freedom, which was essential for democracy, for free and fair elections and for the oversight of Governments, Ann Cooper, Executive Director, Committee to Protect Journalists, told correspondents today during a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a non-profit, bipartisan organization based in New York City, works to defend journalists and press freedom all around the world. To mark World Press Freedom Day tomorrow, 3 May, the CPJ launched a report on the “10 Most Censored Countries”, thereby focusing on the consequences for the public when there is no free press. “What is it like for citizens in countries where all media is controlled by the State, where the Internet is either unavailable or censored, where foreign news broadcasts are jammed by the Government?” Ms. Cooper asked. People in countries like that were kept uninformed by “authoritarian rulers who muzzle the media and keep a chokehold on information through restrictive laws, fear and intimidation”.

She said the report showed that people in North Korea were the most isolated people in the world, living in the most censored country and in the “deepest information void”. The Government there controlled all local media. The official Korean Central News Agency offered a “steady diet of fawning coverage of dear leader Kim Jong Il” while ignoring the 1990s famine. Other countries on the list were: Burma; Turkmenistan; Equatorial Guinea; Libya; Eritrea; Cuba; Uzbekistan; Syria; and Belarus. Details on those countries can be found on www.cpj.org.

She said the list had been compiled by regional staff which had looked at dozens of countries and had rated the degree of censorship against 17 benchmarks, including prior censorship, jamming of foreign new broadcasts and the degree of State control of media. Each country on the list used at least 9 of the 17 censorship benchmarks. In all 10 countries, print and electronic media were under very heavy State control. Most of the 10 countries were ruled by one man who remained in power to a large degree by controlling media. In some cases, such as in North Korea, Turkmenistan and Equatorial Guinea, the media were actively used to foster a personality cult around the country’s autocratic leader.

There was also zero tolerance for negative coverage in countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus and Cuba, she said. The report underscored how those Governments, who censored so heavily, showed a cynical disregard for people’s welfare. “By any international standard, the practices of these Governments are unacceptable. We call on the leaders of these most censored countries to join the free world by abandoning their restrictive actions and allowing journalists to independently report the news and inform their citizens”, Ms. Cooper said in conclusion.

Answering a correspondent’s question, Ms. Cooper said over 100 countries were constantly being monitored. Regional staff had a good feel for what were likely to be the most censored countries and had honed in on a few that they knew would meet some or all benchmarks.

Asked about Uzbekistan, a country recently praised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for its progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, she said the United Nations system and all Governments that cared about democracy in the world needed to look at the records. It was true that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some independent media had developed in Uzbekistan, but their independence had always been tenuous at best. After the Andijan massacre last May, all independent and foreign media had been squeezed out. The situation now looked pretty much like during the Soviet era. The United Nations and Governments needed to protest about that very strongly.

In terms of press freedom, Belarus was the most repressive country in Europe. It was a “shameful record” that should be protested not just by the United States and Western European Governments, but by Russia and other countries from the former Soviet Union. The fact that criticism was not forthcoming from that corner was a factor enabling the country’s President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, to continue his repressive actions. He used administrative techniques to repress the press. Printing houses, for instance, were ordered not to print private newspapers. The postal service was told not to distribute them. After the recent elections, a number of journalists had been arrested on the “ridiculous” charge of “hooliganism”, a Soviet-style charge.

Noting that three countries on the list were former members of the Soviet Union, a correspondent asked if there was a pattern. Ms. Cooper answered that there “absolutely” was a pattern. A year and a half ago, the CPJ had written that there was less press freedom today in most of the countries that were in the Soviet Union, than there was in the Soviet Union during its final years, the “glasnost” years. In those days, the press was much more lively and unfettered than it was today in most of the countries that had been part of the Soviet Union, including the Russian Federation, all of Central Asia and “absolutely” Belarus.

Responding to a question about the arrest of an editor in the Republic of the Congo, currently President of the Security Council, Ms. Cooper said that “journalism should not be a criminal act”. There were far too many countries that were willing to throw journalists in prison for being critical. The CPJ did news alerts on such cases. Unfortunately, there were worse cases in Africa, such as in Eritrea, where 15 journalists had been in jail, many of them since September 2001, and held incommunicado.

Asked about the situation in Cuba, she said that country was the world’s second worst jailer of journalists, after China. It now had about two dozen journalists imprisoned. The situation there was monitored closely, and international attention could make a difference. Some journalists had been released as a result of international campaigns. It was “very slow going”, however. The CPJ was not going to give up, and she hoped Governments around the world would not give up either on pressuring Cuba to release imprisoned journalists.

Addressing the situation of the Arab Press, she said the CPJ’s Middle East programme was “extremely active” in monitoring press abuse around the region. It had published a major report on Yemen. Recently, she had visited Saudi Arabia and a report was forthcoming. The CPJ was constantly pressuring the United States Government and Iraqi authorities on death threats to journalists and pressure on journalists. A number of Iraqi journalists had been held by the United States. However, all of them had been released and cases against them had been dismissed.

There was indeed a difference between the treatment of foreign journalists and local journalists, she answered another question. In some cases, it was difficult for foreign journalists to enter a country. In North Korea, it was virtually impossible. In Cuba, it was hard to operate. Often, like in the Pakistani tribal areas, foreign journalists had to travel with a local journalist. The worst thing that could happen to a foreign journalist was that he or she was thrown out of the country. A local journalist could face incarceration.

One of the “also ran” countries that had not made the list was China, she answered another question. China was the leading jailer of journalists, but at the same time the press had more freedom now than ever before. The report had looked at where people felt the most isolated, and China did not fit in that category, as news entered the country. Zimbabwe was another example. Some 100 journalists were now living in exile, but foreign journalists were still getting in.

It was the first time her organization had compiled this particular list, she added. It had compiled other lists and reports, such as a list of the most dangerous countries for journalists. North Korea had not made that list, because it did not have any independent journalists.

As for the success of her organization’s actions, she said that the condition of freedom of the press was worsening. The situation in Iraq was particularly difficult for journalists. There were now some 500 attacks on journalists a year. The CPJ issued news alerts and wrote protest letters, all accessible on its website. Often, when a journalist was released early, she believed it was done so as a result of international campaigning and by pressure from foreign Governments who prized press freedom. The CPJ wanted to make governments understand that it was “simply not acceptable” to put journalists in prison in a country that claimed to strive towards democracy.

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