Reporters at Risk

Toward Freedom magazine, Winter 19998/99


In the first half of 1998, the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN reported 65S cases in which journalists around the world were harassed, attacked, or murdered -a significant increase over last year. The facts are chilling: Over 90 writers or journalists persecuted and another 194 cases under investigation; 11 writers killed, plus 20 other questionable murders; and at least 13 writers disappeared. Many more were the victims of kidnapping, death threats, detention, attacks, and legal cases.

In response to such violations of press freedom, 60 French newspapers and radio and television stations launched an appeal in October to free journalists currently detained in Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Cuba, Nigeria, Syria, and Turkey. Currently, 93 journalists are detained worldwide (a slight improvement since last year), according to Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). The slogan for their annual "sponsorship day," also held in Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland, was, "When journalists are behind bars, the whole country is in prison."

Here's a roundup of some recent developments.

Turkey: After conducting an inquiry into freedom of expression, RFR concluded that Turkey's government hasn't fulfilled its promises to improve press freedom. In the first eight months of 1998, two journalists died during police operations, five were tortured, 58 were attacked, threatened, or harassed, and 45 others were arrested. The number of seized or censured media has more than doubled since 1997.

From January to August, state security agents were responsible for 75 percent of violent incidents against the press. The main targets of police action were media considered "subversive," pro-Kurdish, and far-Left, although the mainstream press also was targeted. "Despite the fact that some minor reforms have been implemented in efforts to curb security force excesses, the legal system rarely imposes sentences against police accused of abuses," the report concludes.

Russia: In late October, the case against Alexander Nikitin was sent back to the security service for review, while Nikitin remained under city arrest. Judge Sergei Golets severely criticized the way the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) had conducted its three-year investigation. According to Human Rights Watch, "Nikitin was facing a twenty-year prison term on charges of espionage ancl divulging state secrets, which stem from his work for the Norwegian Bellona Foundation on a report exposing nuclear contamination caused by Russia'.s Northern Fleet."

Nikitin maintains his innocence, saying that information used in the Bellona report was taken from public sources. According to Nikitins lawyers, Judge Golets cannot acquit Nikitin "on grounds of an unclear indictment" under criminal law. HRW concludes, "This frequently results in criminal cases being sent back and forth between the courts and the prosecutor's office for years, while defendants are often kept in pretrial detention."

Burma: Charging that press freedom is non-existent in Burma(Myanmar), RSF has launched an appeal for the immediate, unconditional release of seven journalists and "the establishment of an independent press, the essential precondition for a democratic debate, and media access for all ethnic minorities." At least 14 Burmese journalists have been sent to jail since the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) took power in 1988. Hundreds of' activists supporting the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, have also been arrested. The seven journalists in Burma's jails are all members of the NLD. In the past, two reporters have died in prison.

"The Burmese press operates under strict censorship which bans the use of expressions such as democracy and human rights," notes RSF. The penalty for giving "false information" to the international media is jail, and "the legal arsenal is so wide-ranging that no free press can exist." For example, a 1996 law requires all computer equipment to be licensed. Failure to do so risks up to 15 years in prison.

The activities of foreign journalists are also restricted, and the few foreign news agencies that have offices in Rangoon may only work with Burmese staff.

Romania: Journalists here face the increasing likelihood of going to jail on defamation charges. In August, the mother of Cornel Sabou, editor of the privately-owned news agency Trans Press, went on a hunger strike to protest the jailing of her son. Sabou was sentenced to a 10-month prison term for allegedly "defaming" Judge Mariana Iancu in an article published in Ziua (The Day).

In July, Ovidiu Scultelnicu and Dragos Stangu, journalists with the local daily Munitorul, were sentenced to one year in jail and fined 1.5 billion lei ($160,000). They were found guilty of "defaming" Police Colonel Petru Susanu in an article that criticized his methods and raised doubts about the origins of his personal fortune. A month later, Monitorul journalists Florentin Florescu and Radu Burlacu were convicted and fined after reporting how Susanu pressured magistrates during his son's trial for the destruction of an historical building.

According to RSF and other groups, "In using prison terms against journalists for expressing their opinions, the current government in Romania is flagrantly contravening Romania's international commitments related to the respect of freedom of expression." Romania is a member of the Council of Europe and a candidate for entry into the European Union.

Serbia: Attacks against the media continue unabated in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Newspapers have been banned and several journalists have been reported missing in Kosovo. Meanwhile, authorities intend to turn the decree used to ban the papers and radio stations into law.

In October, journalist Nebojsa Radosevic and photographer Vladimir Dobricic, of the Yugoslav state news agency Tanjug, were reported missing on the Pristina-Magura road in Kosovo. "This is the second abduction case since the beginning of the Kosovo conflict," says the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM).

Rights groups worldwide have condemned the threats to independent media, as well as government warnings against journalists and the canceling of an October media conference. The Broadcasting for a Democratic Europe conference, organized by ANEM and sponsored by the Council of Europe, was supposed to take place in Belgrade. But Yugoslav authorities prevented foreign participants from obtaining visas. "Such behavior," notes ANEM, "suggests that they have abandoned the idea that Yugoslavia be re-integrated in the European society of states."

Serbian officials have threatened reporters and other critics with reprisals if NATO moves against Yugoslavia. "The Americans found their fifth column here," charges Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Seselj. "It is composed of politically irrelevant parties and independent media. We can't shoot down every NATO plane, but we can grab those agents who are at hand." Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic has accused the media of spreading lies and fear, while lawmaker Zeljko Simic charges the journalists with "high treason" for aiding Albanian separatists by reporting on the war in Kosovo. Electronic media have been asked to stop broadcasting foreign news in Serbian.

According to HRW, Seselj and other officials have repeatedly attacked the foreign media and independent news outlets for "betraying Serbian interests" and "provoking military intervention." The government has brought charges for slander or disseminating misinformation, and dozens of independent stations have been denied licenses to broadcast. NATO intervention will likely lead to more restrictions and censorship.

Vietnam: While some dissident writers and journalists here have been released from prison, others remain incarcerated, says Human Rights Watch (HRW). For example, journalist Doan Viet Hoat was released as part of a mass amnesty granted in celebration of Vietnam's National Day on September 2, along with fellow dissident Dr. Nguyen Dan Que. Hoat, who went into exile in the US, should be allowed to return to his country, argues the World Association of Newspapers (WAN). His release from prison into exile, said WAN, "does not solve the underlying problem of freedom of expression in Vietnam." According to International PEN, other journalists, writers, and poets released include Dang Phuc Tue (religious name: Thich Quang Do), Le Manh That (known as Ven. Thich Tri Sieu), Pham Van Thuong (Ven. Thich Tue Sy), and Nguyen Van Thuan. But dozens are still detained for religious or political reasons, and the recent amnesty didn't include those currently under "administrative detainment" according to Directive 31/CP, which authorizes detention without trial for up to two years.

European Union: According to Index on Censorship, access to information is being limited by the European Union (EU), while information itself is censored by the European Commission (EC). In a feature series called "Brussels spouts," Martin Walker charged that investigative journalism is almost impossible in Brussels, the capital city of European affairs. One barrier is the lack of a recognized European press corps. "It is, therefore, a city in which the customary balance of power in a democracy between the rulers and the ruled does not hold," he concluded.

The EU also has been criticized for protecting officials and paying lawyers representing officials under investigation to hound journalists. Listing 4() recent cases of internal corruption, nepotism, or mismanagement, the European Court of Auditors charged that "EU officials enjoy legal immunity [and] the EU alone decides whether there is sufficient evidence to mount a prosecution against an official."

Walker noted that even his more daring colleagues "are all too well aware of the dangers of investigative reporting of an elite bureaucracy like the Commission, which does not see itself as answerable to anyone and which polices itself." On the other hand, Index has noted that things may improve with an agreement known as the Treaty of' Amsterdam, which requires "transparency" in the way Europe is governed.

Information for this summary was provided by the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Clearing House, a weekly service operated by the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists. For information: 489 College St. #403, Toronto, Ontario M6G 1A5 Canada; (416) 515 9622;fax, (416) 515 7879; e-mail, Reports and alerts also can be viewed at

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