Bearing witness to the dangers of pursuing the right to information
As 2013 did, and several years before that, 2014 appears about to end with a depressing number of journalists killed for attempting to tell the world about war, corruption, crime, human rights violations and politics, a reminder that for too many, pursuing the right to information is dangerous.
In addition, more than 200 journalists remain in jail, with China leading the pack, according to Reporters Without Borders, with 44 imprisoned, followed by Iran at 30, although the number has fallen slightly with Iran’s reformist president.
According to Reporters Without Borders, 66 journalists have been killed so far this year along with another 19 netizens and citizen journalists, some in brutal fashion including freelancers James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were beheaded by ISIS fundamentalists somewhere in Syria. But equally brutal, if not as spectacular methods have been used elsewhere. MVR Shankar, for instance, was beaten to death in Eastern India by assailants armed with iron rods for reporting on oil smuggling and corruption in the rice trade.
For reasons that are unclear, the number of deaths catalogued by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists differs from the tally by Reporters Without Borders. CPJ reports 77 killed, 59 with the motive confirmed and another 18 without the ability to tell why they were killed. Seventeen reporters were killed covering the civil war in Syria alone. Twenty-six were murdered across the world, 23 were caught in crossfire in wars and 10 died on dangerous assignment.
As usual, few of the murderers have been brought to justice. Despite increased international attention to the murders of journalists, “governments fail to take action to reduce the high rates of targeted violence and impunity,” the Committee to Protect Journalists finds. “In the past 10 years, 370 journalists were murdered; in 90 percent of cases, there are no convictions. The unchecked, unsolved murders of journalists is one of the greatest threats to press freedom today.”
Ten reporters were murdered in Asia – three in Pakistan, two in India, two in Afghanistan and one each in Bangladesh and the Philippines and Myanmar. As often as not, it is law enforcement officials who do the killing. On April 6, for instance, Rubylita Garcia, a Filipina reporter for the tabloid newspaper Remate and host of a local radio talk show, was killed in her home by gunmen who broke in and shot her Justice Secretary Leila de Lima told CPJ that the Department of Justice considered a senior police officer to be the main suspect.
The army in Myanmar appears to have beaten Aung Kyaw Naing, a freelance reporter, to death for his coverage of the Karen insurgency although officials said he had been shot to death while trying to escape from custody. But when the family exhumed his body, they found he had a broken jaw, broken ribs and his head had been bashed in.
The Committee to Protect Journalists identified 220 journalists in jail around the world in 2014, an increase of nine from 2013. The tally marks the second-highest number of journalists in jail since CPJ began taking an annual census of imprisoned journalists in 1990, and highlights a resurgence of authoritarian governments in countries such as China, Ethiopia, Burma, and Egypt. Three Al Jazeera journalists in Cairo -- Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed – are in prison, convicted of broadcasting false news and aiding a "terrorist organization," charges the international community considers to be utterly specious.
They are hardly alone. “China’s use of anti-state charges and Iran’s revolving door policy in imprisoning reporters, bloggers, editors, and photographers earned the two countries the dubious distinction of being the world’s worst and second worst jailers of journalists, respectively,” according to Reporters Without Borders. “Together, China and Iran are holding a third of journalists jailed globally—despite speculation that new leaders who took the reins in each country in 2013 might implement liberal reforms.”
The 44 journalists in Chinese jails are a jump from 32 the previous year, and reflect the pressure that President Xi Jinping has exerted on media, lawyers, dissidents, and academics to toe the government line. In addition to jailing journalists, Beijing has issued restrictive new rules about what can be covered and denied visas to international journalists, Reporters Without Borders said. “Coverage of ethnic minority issues continues to be sensitive; almost half of those jailed are Tibetan or Uighur, including academic and blogger Ilham Tohti and seven students imprisoned for working on his website, Uighurbiz. Twenty-nine of the journalists behind bars in China were held on anti-state charges.
The administration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has also maintained repressive measures against the press. This year, according to CPJ, Iranian authorities were holding 30 journalists in jail, down from 35 in 2013 and a record high of 45 in 2012.
CPJ’s 2014 International Press Freedom Award winner Siamak Ghaderi was released from prison in July, but that same month, Iranian authorities jailed Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter. By late 2014, the government had still not disclosed the reason for Rezaian’s arrest or the nature of charges against him.
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel