Journalists Around the World at Risk of Violence or Imprisonment

As the world marked international Press Freedom Day yesterday, there was growing concern about the conditions facing journalists around the world. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has expressed concern a Tibetan editor jailed in China may be suffering torture, the American journalist Roxana Saberi is said to be frail due to an ongoing hunger strike in protest of her 8 year sentence for ‘espionage’ in Iran, and numerous heads of state are listed as ‘predators’ working against press freedom.

The situation in Iraq continues to be extremely grave, with over 200 journalists and media workers killed since the 2003 invasion. Violence is ongoing and the government of Nouri al-Maliki is reported to be putting mounting pressure on reporters to be less critical of government.

In Cuba, Pres. Raúl Castro is reported to be continuing the regime’s harsh treatment of journalists. According to RSF:

The transition period and Raúl Castro’s first few months in sole charge saw continuing harassment of independent journalists including police brutality, summonses and searches by State Security (the political police) and detention for short periods. Nineteen of the journalists arrested during the March 2003 “Black Spring” continue to serve jail terms ranging from 14 to 27 years in appalling prison conditions. With a total of 23 journalists detained, Cuba is the world’s second biggest prison for the media, after China.


China’s Hu Jintao is also listed as a predator of the press by RSF, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko. Accused not only of torturing detained Tibetan activists and at least one editor, China has been jailing journalists and cyber-dissidents for years, with very little effort made to cover-up such persecution of the press.

Sri Lanka has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to operate. The government’s recent offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), aimed at ending a decades’ long civil war, has been described as indiscriminate, targeting densely populated civilian areas. A recent BBC radio report clearly featured constant heavy artillery bombardment of the purported civilian “safe zone”, from where a Tamil minister gave his interview.

Journalists have been barred from areas where they might perceive some of the brutality of the conflict. No known measures have been confirmed to protect journalists traveling to the safe zone or attempting to track civilian deaths in the region, and the Sri Lankan government has resorted to jailing journalists. Pres. Obama expressed concern about the fate of J.S. Tissainayagam, who has spent more than a year in prison for his work writing about Sri Lanka’s inter-ethnic conflict.

Lasantha Wickramatunge, editor in chief of The Sunday Leader, was assaulted in his car by 8 masked attackers, and shot to death, apparent retribution for reporting that was critical of the government. His last story foreshadowed his murder, carrying the headline “And Then They Came for Me”. He was killed just two days after the bombing of the country’s main independent television station.

Two weeks after Wickramatunge’s assassination, another newspaper editor was brutally beaten in his car. He survived, but fled the country. There has been no evidence of prosecution or punishment for anyone involved in attacking or killing journalists in Sri Lanka, and The New York Times reports:

[Wickramatunge] was one of at least eight journalists who have been killed in recent years in what appears to be a broad Sri Lankan government campaign to silence dissenting voices.

Many others have been kidnapped or assaulted, according to the reports of press monitoring agencies. Many have stopped writing or have capitulated in self-censorship. Dozens are under arrest, and dozens more have fled the country.

Lasantha’s brother Lal continues as managing editor of The Sunday Leader and has said “if we don’

t take what happened and make Sri Lanka a better place, then Lasantha will have died in vain”. His job is dangerous in that simply reporting the truth may require him to put his life on the line, publishing information the government would like to conceal.

In April, Lasantha Wickramatunge was posthumously awarded UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize for 2009. According to a UN press release:

In 1994, he started the Sunday Leader with his brother and used the publication to campaign vigorously against the war between the Sri Lankan army and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In 2000, Mr. Wickrematunge secured a court victory which led to the abolition of the law that allowed the Government to curb the media. In November 2007, the Sunday Leader was damaged in an arson attack that Mr. Wickrematunge said resembled a “commando action.”

The jury that chose Wickramatunge was said by its members to have been moved to near unanimity by the evidence that the crusading editor was well aware of the very real threat to his safety, but continued to fight for the principle of a free press and to report the truth, even amid a violent crackdown on the independent press.

Hundreds of journalists around the world are presently facing imprisonment or the threat of physical violence. A series of high-profile assassinations in Russia have made it one of the places press rights groups watch with most concern. Security services and militant paramilitaries across Africa are accused of attacks on the press, from Nigeria to Sudan, Somalia to Zimbabwe, and into the heart of the Kivu conflict in eastern Congo.

Even as some nations struggle to shape a vibrant truth-telling media culture, press activity is often seen by political factions to have political motivations or affiliations, and partisan groups will often lend their support to media outlets that criticize their opponents or favor their agenda. The politicization of media is most intense where there is official abuse or totalitarian state apparatus, and the chances for free media are often tied directly to the degree of democracy a ruling party is willing to or forced to accept.

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