Wednesday, May 02, 2007

'Democra-tators' aim at journalists

Western war reporters hog the glory, but, as Marina Jimenez writes, local watchdogs face the greatest risk

SALEEM Samad, a genial refugee from Bangladesh, spends his days nabbing shoplifters and shushing disorderly customers as a security guard at a Chapters bookstore. But before he arrived in Toronto four years ago Mr. Samad, 55, was leading a very different kind of life.

A prominent journalist, Mr. Samad was forced to spend 55 days in a Dhaka prison, simply for having the audacity to criticize his own government.

The annual World Press Freedom Day, to be marked this Thursday, honours journalists who brave death or jail in pursuit of the truth.

Yet, all too often, the headlines focus on international stars such as Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and killed by extremists in Pakistan. In fact, far more tortured or slain journalists
are not war correspondents but locals such as Mr. Samad, attacked at home or in their newsrooms, often by agents of their own governments.

Often those governments are, like that of Bangladesh, nominally democratic, even members of the Commonwealth. But they are led by what Joel Simon of New York's Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
calls "democra-tators," elected leaders with authoritarian streaks such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

These leaders have a deep mistrust for the institutions that limit their power, such as the judiciary and the press. Three journalists were killed in Russia last year, including Anna Politkovskaya, a Chechnya expert, last October.

In the case of Mr. Samad, he was behind bars from late November of 2002 until mid-January in 2003, and endured torture at the hands of military intelligence officers. When he asked his jailors what crime he had committed, they said he had smeared Bangladesh's good reputation with his exposes on Islamic terrorism, published locally and internationally, including in Time.

"They didn't like my writings on how the Bengali government was harbouring terrorists and jihadists," he says. "They wanted to know why I was trying to undermine a democratic government. They were trying to silence me."

Mr. Samad was lucky. He was released and in 2004 fled Bangladesh for a new life in Canada. Others are not so fortunate.

According to a report released last month by the Paris-based International News Safety Institute (INSI), the number of journalists killed on the job has escalated dramatically in recent years. In the past decade, more than a thousand media members have been slain, and in nine out of 10 cases, the perpetrators have never been prosecuted.

Reporters Without Borders tabulated the deaths of 81 journalists and 32 media assistants (drivers, translators, security and fixers) last year alone. It is the highest toll since 1994, when 103 died, half of
them in the Rwandan genocide. An additional 1,400 attacks or threats were carried out against journalists - many of them during election campaigns in Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. Another record.

That is why the focus for this year's World Press Freedom Day is impunity, and the need to bring to justice those who target and kill journalists.

"With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the return to democracy in Latin America, we saw an explosion of press freedom," notes Mr. Simon of the CPJ. "But, in this decade, there have been some losses."

Among them is Hrant Dink, editor of Turkey's only Armenian-language magazine and a well-known critic of the Turkish government's treatment of Armenians. He was shot in the street as he left his office on Jan. 19 of this year.

"In many countries, murder has become the easiest, cheapest and most effective way of silencing troublesome reporting and the more the killers get away with it, the more the spiral of death is forced upwards," INSI director Rodney Pinder said last month.

Not surprisingly, Iraq is the most dangerous place to report from.

The United Nations has become so concerned about the deliberate targeting of journalists that the Security Council even passed a special resolution on Dec. 23, 2006, condemning such attacks and reiterating the right of war correspondents to be treated as prisoners of war and accorded the rights of civilians under the Third Geneva Convention.

Many journalists, though, are killed not in war zones, but covering local politics or crime in countries such as Mexico, Russia, Iran and India. Marlene Garcia-Esperat lost her life for her articles documenting embezzlement and corruption in the local government in Tacurong, the Philippines. She was shot and killed in front of her two children on Easter weekend in 2005. Her bodyguards were off-duty.

Since most of these homicides are never resolved, the sense of impunity only encourages more killings, advocates say. There is also surprisingly little public sympathy for these cases, as though journalists somehow deserve to die for writing about the drug trade, or for criticizing an official state religion.

"There is a sense of complacency when a journalist and their family are killed or are under attack. The public finds it easier to support police officers or firefighters who die in the line of duty," notes Anne Game, executive director of the Toronto-based Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). "But it's so important to try to protect journalists because they're really on the front line. Their freedom to speak enables others to."

Ross Howard, a journalism instructor at Vancouver's Langara College and president of Media and Democracy, a non-profit Canadian group, has crisscrossed the globe training journalists in the developing
world - only to see them targeted as they become less partisan and more professional.

"There is a tragic irony in post-conflict states in emerging democracies that the better the journalist gets, the more dangerous it becomes for him [or] her," he said.

"In countries such as Iran, Cuba or Pakistan, you cannot criticize the supreme leader, question the country's policies or even the economic corruption among the power-holders," notes Maryam Aghvami, an Iranian journalist who is now living in Toronto, where she heads the 70-member Journalists in Exile.

"If you are brave enough to do so, you are accused of acting against the country's national security, spreading lies and spying for Western powers."

Another key difference today is the erosion of the neutral-observer status that journalists used to enjoy. Radical or revolutionary groups no longer view journalists as conduits of information, but as lucrative
kidnapping targets.

Local columnists such as Saleem Samad are seen as "enemies of the state," and international correspondents as representatives of their own governments.

While there is no meaningful global data comparing journalists killed on the job with, for example, firefighters, Julie Payne, CJFE's manager, says the consequences are more profound. The killing of a journalist undermines one of the primary means of holding people accountable - and serves to silence others.

That is why advocacy organizations have begun funding legal cases overseas. CJFE, the CPJ and a number of other groups helped fund the case against Ms. Marlene Garcia-Esperat's killers. Three hit men were finally convicted and received life sentences in October, 2006, in Cebu - though the true power-holding authors of her death remain at large.

CJFE also manages the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), which issues daily alerts of threats and violations to journalists all over the world.

As for Mr. Samad, he, his wife and adult son were all granted asylum here. Today, in addition to working security at the local bookstore, he edits, a news portal for the South Asian diaspora.

He also looks forward to a term this fall as a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Journalism.

Mr. Samad remains thankful to have escaped with his life. After he was released from prison, his house was put under surveillance, his phone lines tapped and his wife continually harassed.

"I kept a small bag ready, sure they would come back and arrest me," he recalls. "I was mentally prepared to pay with my life for my profession." #

Marina Jimenez is a senior feature writer with The Globe and Mail

Article first published in The Globe and Mail, Canada, April 28, 2007 Saturday