By: Leonard R. Sussman
Committee to Protect Journalists reports 113 journalists were murdered in 27 countries in 1994 ? the bloodiest year on record.
IRONICALLY, DURING THE bloodiest “pressticidal” year on record ? 113 journalists murdered in 27 countries ? governments in 1994 seemed more interested in the ethics of journalists than in their safety.
While the Council of Europe debated press ethics, 35 journalists in 16 countries were kidnapped or “disappeared.” Another 255 newspersons were beaten or otherwise assaulted, and 311 were arrested. Most were targeted for their reporting.
Thirty-seven were murdered in Rwanda since the massacres began in April, said a French watchdog group. Seventeen were killed by religious extremists in Algeria. Eleven died, including eight in Bosnia, while covering wars or insurgencies.
By comparison, in 1993, 74 journalists were killed, and 47 kidnapped.
More widespread last year were the 1,460 less fatal but no less censorious attacks in 108 countries ? physical, psychological and economic assaults against journalists and news services.
In Russia in October, Dmitri Kholodov, a prominent investigative journalist, was blown to bits as he received a parcel supposedly containing evidence of corruption in the military. Some 10,000 people attended his memorial service.
“The journalist is everyone’s enemy now,” said a spokesman for the Russian journalists’ union. “Our whole society, the government, everyone is working against the press.”
The Moscow News headline said: “We will not retreat from threats.” At least 15 journalists were killed in the former Soviet Union this year, five in Russia alone.
When gunmen executed Mirwais Jalil, the British Broadcasting Corp.’s (BBC) best-known correspondent in Afghanistan, the BBC said plaintively, “We don’t have our own guns to go out and take revenge. We only have our limited moral authority . . . and the weapon of publicity.”
In Algeria, religious extremists murdered 25 journalists in 18 months. Two were shot and beheaded. They were all “deliberately targeted,” says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
In the past 30 months, CPJ says, 25 reporters and editors were killed in Tajikistan, where the government controls all media and has closed opposition papers.
Thousands of Nigerian newspersons were driven from their jobs in 1994 when the government banned 14 publications, including the three most influential media firms. Publicity to reveal such catastrophic attacks on the flow of information was hampered in at least 40 countries that bar foreign news services or control domestic news monopolies.
The Council of Europe, a purported bastion of Western freedom, in December urged members to examine press “duties and responsibilities.” At closed sessions in Prague, the council approved an “action plan” to study guidelines to address press coverage of violence and “intolerance” and to examine the media’s role in “conflict and terrorism.”
The proposals call for media consultation with “regulatory authorities.”
Moreover, plans involve press freedom restricted by Article 10 of the European Covenant on Human Rights, an article the World Press Freedom Committee called “the most restrictive of any international law text on free speech and press freedom.”
The council’s rationale for government intervention could influence the more than 30 governments ? in Eastern and Central Europe, the former Soviet states, and Africa ? that are devising press laws. The flexible Western European approach, versus strict U.S. First Amendment protections, provides a welcome guide for new press controllers.
In free countries, legislating press ethics lead to clashes of rights. For example, legislatures give citizens the right to reply to statements published about them. Germany’s Saarland passed a law in October requiring newspapers to give equal space to individuals seeking to rebut articles. France has a similar law, seldom invoked.
While the U.S. Supreme Court, barring government from control of press content, has several times declared the right of reply unconstitutional, the Council of Europe now recommends citizens’ rights prevail over press rights.
Journalists in free societies understand that ethical lapses abuse freedom, but resist laws that define responsible journalism. Where press freedom exists, unethical journalism diminishes public trust in the press, and eventually in the society.
After a yearlong debate, the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME) in October revised its code of ethics as a display of principles for an increasingly mistrustful public. The code addresses diversity in staffing and coverage, plagiarism and electronic photo manipulation. Some 27% of editors opposed it, a number on the grounds that it would invite lawsuits.
Intervention by government, however, threatens not only press freedom but the right of citizens to the free flow of information. Not surprisingly, many governments stage press-ethics debates to influence news content.
In a classic example of the volatility of this mix, Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar told local journalists: “A citizen has the right to obtain truthful information, and the state has to guarantee it . . . . [E]ither you, the journalists, do it of your own free will, and protect citizens from lies and manipulations, or . . . the state has to do it . . . . Of course . . . the state organs could divide the dailies and media into the ‘vulgar press’ and the ‘serious press’ and differentiate your incomes according to the tax code.”
grapple with freedom
The Russian Duma, or parliament, all last year tussled with a rewrite of the Russian Federation’s 1991 media law. To try to improve public perception of press irresponsibility, the Union of Russian Journalists drafted a code of ethics, which, the union’s secretary said, would have reporters “voluntarily assuming serious responsibilities and a readiness to civilize the activities of the Russian press.”
There is great diversity among Russian newspapers, although radio and television remain under central control. To be sure, the most Draconian provisions in the Russian statute have gone unenforced. The lower chamber of the Duma early in 1994 approved an amendment to control the content of broadcast news, but it was not likely to go forward.
Later, the Duma voted to bar the executive branch of government from owning newspapers, a practice that had enabled non-Communists to establish newspapers to compete against the 157 pro-Communist papers. Under another bill, the Duma would finance newspapers, thus giving it powers over the press that it denied the executive branch. President Boris Yeltsin opposed the plan.
It will take time for the new democracies in the East to develop standards taken for granted in Western press relationships. This requires tolerance toward opposition views, airing of conflicting positions, and respect for political processes. Though sometimes skirted in the West, these attributes are generally absent in the states of the former Soviet empire, in part because Western governments, which bridle at press “excesses” at home, rarely demand press freedom in the newly liberated nations.
The fact is, while a responsible press is desirable, it is impossible to legislate. And ? given freedom of expression ? errors of fact, poor judgment and insensitivity are inevitable.
What, then, of the press’s moral authority, which figures equate with press freedom? In 57 countries, or 31% of the world’s nations, the press is not free and has little authority, moral or otherwise. In 62 countries, the press is partly free. In the other 67 nations, the news media are free, even though their moral authority is repeatedly challenged. Absent guarantees of press freedom, proposed laws governing press ethics, while deftly avoiding government censorship, place journalists on the defensive against allegations of licentiousness and subversion.
Press freedom is judged by the news media’s independence from government, the absence of the government’s ability to influence political, economic, social and occupational issues.
In the Gambia, which had been relatively free, a military coup in July resulted in the negation of constitutional protections for freedom of expression. A military decree gives the government far-reaching powers of censorship, including the power to ban reports deemed political. Gambia’s media are now listed as “not free.”
Malawi and Guyana moved to the free-press from the partly free category. Antigua, Barbuda and Venezuela went from free to partly free. Cameroon, Haiti, Kuwait and Uganda went to partly free, from not free. Entering the ranks of the controlled press were Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Nigeria. Yemen and Zambia remained partly free.
The government of Kenya is trying to “bully us into self-censorship,” said David Makali, a writer for The People, who was beaten in prison and forced to break rocks for five hours a day. Charges of sedition and contempt of court, rather than of direct censorship, have served to restrict press freedom in recent years. The government promises to present a new press law in 1995.
Elsewhere in Africa, parliaments have pondered laws governing press ethics. The Botswana legislature passed an anti-corruption bill that threatens press freedom by permitting newsroom searches and confiscation of documents, acts that could force disclosure of sources. Anyone who “fails to provide any information or to answer any questions . . . shall be guilty of an offense,” the law says. Long free, Botswana’s press is now under fire.
Tanzania theoretically expanded press freedom, only to crack down when journalists criticized the government. The government tried to create a media council, which would enable journalists, under official guidance, to regulate press ethics and responsibility. When that failed, the government turned to intimidation, using police and the courts. Under the 1976 Newspaper Act, the minister of information can ban papers deemed a “danger” to the nation. The publisher of Express and a reporter were arrested and charged with sedition for claiming in graphic terms that Tanzania has become a dumping ground for expired medicines, foods and chemicals. While the government encouraged the establishment of new TV and radio stations, some privately owned, government propaganda over Radio Tanzania makes it impossible for opposition parties to be heard.
Official censorship was lifted in Cameroon because the country’s journalists pledged to both adopt a code of ethics and establish a self-regulatory body to see it is “rigorously” administered. While hardly voluntary at the outset, the code will be watched to see whether it results in government-sponsored self-censorship or an earnest effort to raise professional integrity.
In Uganda, a government bill would create a media council to license journalists and register newspapers. The journalists’ association said the bill would “severely limit press freedom” but acknowledged the government has not censored the media for some time, despite reportage that outraged public sensibilities. The journalists submitted their own plan to meet “the government’s sworn need to have statutory control of the press, and the journalists’ own need to remain independent and autonomous.”
in the Americas
Press licensing reemerged as a contentious issue in South and Central America in 1994. The journalists’ association of Costa Rica, the Colegio de Periodistas, proposed to amend the nation’s constitution to include obligatory licensing of journalists.
For years, Costa Rica’s licensing laws prevented all but members of the Colegio from working in the news media. When this law was challenged in 1985, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that mandatory licensing denies freedom of expression, and is “incompatible” with the American Convention on Human Rights.
Nevertheless, Costa Rica and a dozen other countries in the hemisphere continue the practice.
Costa Rican journalists argue that licensing maintains professional standards and protects working conditions. The practice also limits competition for jobs, while giving censorious governments a tool to remove critical journalists from their jobs. At year-end, Venezuela required journalists to carry a certificate.
Costa Rica’s highest court surprised journalists in July by imposing restrictions on the right of the press to report an investigation in progress. On privacy grounds, the court forbade the press from identifying subjects of a criminal investigation. The same week, a columnist became the first reporter ever convicted of desacato, “irreverence,” for offending the honor of a public official. This offense increasingly appears in proposed codes of press ethics in many countries. Costa Rica retains its listing in the free-press category.
Europe and Asia/Pacific
The partly free Turkish press suffered extreme harassment, especially those organizations that reported on the Kurdish movement.
In addition to one journalist who was killed and three missing, there were 49 arrests, 18 assaults and some 30 other harassments. Although the government promised to amend an anti-terrorism law often used to intimidate journalists, little progress in this direction was made.
Romania proposed amending the penal code so that journalists who slander civil servants could receive two years more in prison than would an ordinary citizen. Even if they publish information “proven true,” journalists could face six months to three years in prison. The lower house of parliament was considering even harsher penalties for journalists who insult the country’s president.
The Cambodian government in November asked the legislature to approve a criminal defamation law that could put an individual behind bars for three years for insulting the king. The press generally is under attack, as three journalists have been murdered and some newspapers have been shut down.
In November, China sentenced dissident journalist Gao Yu to six years in prison. She was convicted, at a trial in which she was denied counsel, of “leaking state secrets.”
A writer for a Hong Kong magazine, Yu had been held since October 1993, when she was apprehended just days before starting a one-year fellowship at Columbia University. Her case heightens fears about press freedom in Hong Kong when China resumes control in 1997.
In an example of Singapore’s pervasive velvet censorship, a government official said Christopher Lingle, an American academic who criticized Singapore’s “compliant judiciary” in a piece in the International Herald Tribune, may he charged with “contempt of court or criminal defamation.” Lingle left Singapore, rather than face extensive litigation ? or worse.
Clearly, full freedom of the press ? even the right of a foreign citizen to write in a foreign newspaper about Singapore ? does not exist with that country’s tightly controlled government.
U.K. press freedom wins a higher rating since the ban on broadcasting certain information about Northern Ireland was lifted in September. The 1988 ban, strongly opposed by journalists, forbade the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) and Independent Broadcasting Association (IBA) from carrying the words of, or soliciting support for, illegal paramilitary organizations. Also banned were legal political groups, such as Sinn Fen, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and the Ulster Defense Association, an armed Loyalist group from the Protestant community.
U.K. journalists also won a landmark victory in May, when the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg upheld the claim of former reporter William Goodwin, who had been held in contempt by a British high court for refusing to identify a confidential source.
The European commission held that protection of sources “is an essential means of enabling the press to perform its important function of ‘public watchdog’ in a democratic society.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court, according journalists limited rights to avoid subpoenas, has in some instances ruled they must supply information so that defendants can exercise their right to a fair trial.
Elsewhere, restrictions on news media were eased.
The Upper House of the Polish Parliament in October rejected a proposed official-secrets act that would have imposed stiff prison terms for disclosing information the government considers vital to its interests. If the Lower House of Parliament approves the law, President Lech Walesa has veto power.
In Malawi, after 30 years of dictatorial rule ended in elections in May, newspapers profligated when censorship ended. While the interim constitution protects press freedom, censorship laws remain on the books.
Following Israel’s agreements with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Israeli journalists are seeking to end military censorship, which requires that a censor every day list topics that must be submitted for approval.
The chief censor does not see an end to his job, but journalists are more restive than ever, and a decision will clearly depend on how arrangements with the PLO, and eventually Syria and Lebanon, work out.