At least two international organizations have separately described 2004 as uniquely bad for the press worldwide. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which represents more than half a million journalists in 110 countries, described the year as “the worst year on record” for the press, while the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF-Reporters Without Borders) called 2004 “the deadliest year for a decade” for journalists. The RSF assessment was released last January 5, while that of IFJ was made as early as mid-December, 2004.
IFJ based its assessment on its list of 120 journalists killed worldwide. Although RSF’s list of journalists killed was shorter at 53, it nevertheless agreed with IFJ that 2004 had been particularly problematic.
That this should be happening was unexpected before 2001. The 1990s had been generally better years for the press than the previous decade. There were encouraging signs of liberalization everywhere. In Southeast Asia, the Thai press had recovered its freedom in 1992, and the Indonesian press in 1998.
As a result of these trends, even the rulers of Singapore and Malaysia were beginning to show signs that they might be prepared to loosen their grip on the press. The killing of journalists did continue in the Philippines, but in most years at levels lower (an average of three a year) than the levels seen in 2003 (seven deaths) and 2004 (twelve).
In Africa as well as Latin America, the same trend was evident. Even dictatorships were beginning to make press freedom noises, primarily because they would have been so out of step with the rest of the world otherwise.
All this changed after 2001. The critical factor in the reversal of the liberalization trend was the US “war on terror” which commenced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. The Bush administration made it clear that the “war on terror” was its main priority, and in many instances would be waged at the expense of civil and political liberties.
The US policy gave dictatorships and would-be dictators from China to Zimbabwe the excuse to suppress civil liberties and press freedom. After 2001, many countries harassed, threatened and imprisoned journalists and political dissidents on the excuse that their targets were either terrorists or were in alliance with terrorists. As in the governments of those countries, the dangerous assumption in the current US administration is that the press is a partisan in conflict–and therefore a legitimate target.
In Iraq, which the US attacked and occupied using the war on terror as an excuse, US forces have thus targeted journalists they regard as “unfriendly”. This category primarily but not exclusively includes those from Arab media organizations like the Qatar-based TV station Al-Jazeera.
In April 2003, three weeks after the US invasion of Iraq, US tanks fired on Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, where US forces knew most foreign journalists were billeted, and killed cameramen Taras Protsyuk, 35, of the UK’s Reuters news agency, and Jose Couso, 37, of the Spanish TV station Telecinco. Tareq Ayub, a 34-year-old correspondent of Al-Jazeera, was also killed when US forces launched a missile into the station’s offices in Baghdad.
The deaths brought to 12 the toll among journalists at that time. As a result, RSF declared that it was “appalled by these figures and infuriated by the attitude of the American army, whose behaviour has continued to deteriorate with respect to journalists, especially those not embedded since the start of [the war on Iraq].”
But the IFJ, through Aidan White, had warned as early as 2002 that the US “war on terror” was reversing the trend of media liberalization evident in the 1990s. White, formerly with the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper and IFJ’s General Secretary for the last 17 years, described the killing of journalists last December as “senseless” and 2004 as marking “a year of unprecedented horror for journalism.” IFJ statistics, said White, show that [2004 was] the worst single year on record.” White took particular note of the Philippines and Iraq.
“Many of [the deaths in conflict areas] could not have been avoided, but targeted killings as we have witnessed in the Philippines and Iraq…must be properly and publicly investigated and the killers brought to justice.”
Although White did not say so in the IFJ December statement, he had earlier noted that one of the reasons for the resurgence in the harassment, threats, imprisonment and assassinations of journalists has been the United States’ so-called war on terror.
In a meeting of the International Free Expression Exchange (IFEX) in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa in November, 2002, White emphasized that the war on terror was being used by dictatorships and would-be dictators everywhere as an excuse to suppress press freedom, after nearly a decade of liberalization world-wide.
In an interview with United Press International last September, White pointed out that there are so far 12 unexplained killings of journalists in Iraq by the forces of “democratic countries, particularly the United States.”
“We have not had satisfactory, independent enquiries into those deaths, nor explanations other than ‘unfortunate friendly fire,’ or ‘collateral damage.’ This is completely unacceptable,” said White.
Asked whether journalists from Al-Jazeera had been particularly targeted by US forces in Iraq, White said, “Definitely. A caricature of Al-Jazeera has been created by those in favor of the Iraq war, and unfortunately it has been victimized during the last 12 months in a way which is absolutely scandalous.
“In a democracy,” White continued, “you have to live with divergent opinions even if you disagree with them strongly and they may appear to be dangerous. When a media organization is seeking to have those opinions made available to the public, that is actually something which energizes and refreshes democracy rather than undermining it.”
Asked if American coverage of the war has been refreshing for democracy, White said his “main concern is that in the run-up to the war and in the period immediately after the invasion, the U.S. media in general went to sleep.”
The US media, White continued, “failed to ask the tough questions of the administration about why it was going to war, and it failed to carry out the normal journalistic job of scrutinizing exactly what was going on…
“The United States is blessed with a media system which is constitutionally the freest in
the world, and if journalists fail to use that system then they are abdicating their responsibility to provide the sort of reliable, accurate, timely information which people need to make decisions.”
But precisely and ironically because the United States is thought to have such a media system, its policies and actions with regard to civil and political liberties including the press have become convenient models for repression.
Among US actions in 2004, for example, were threats from Republican-appointed US judges to imprison American journalists for refusing to disclose their sources. This prompted New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to warn that abuses against the press that have long been associated with such countries as China and Zimbabwe “are about to unfold in the United States, part of an alarming new pattern of assault on American freedom of the press.”
In another instance, this time involving foreign journalists, the United States arrested and deported six French journalists for not having a press visa. The journalists were handcuffed, fingerprinted, interrogated, body-searched six times, imprisoned in a US immigration cell, and then put on a plane back to France after 24 hours.
Given these examples of repression in the “land of the free” and by its forces abroad, what’s your garden-variety would-be or actual dictator who’s been itching to suppress the media to do, but follow in its footsteps? Or to put it in another way, the only difference between being killed in Iraq and being killed in the Philippines is that the killers of journalists wear uniforms in the former. In both cases the goal is the same, and that’s to silence those they don’t agree with.