A treacherous time for journalists

Thousands of journalists in some of the most press-hostile countries held marches and sit-ins on Tuesday to demand an end to government censorship and jailings and to highlight the threat of killing, kidnapping and other abuses they face.

Human-chain demonstrations, vigils and a United Nations conference were under way or scheduled in countries from the Philippines to Senegal for the 15th annual World Press Freedom Day.

Even as reporters demanded an end to harassment, in Kenya, the country’s first lady stormed the offices of the African nation’s largest newspaper with her bodyguards and allegedly slapped a television cameraman who tried to film the intrusion, witnesses said.

Lucy Kibaki, wife of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, was protesting stories carried in daily papers that she tried to stop a Friday-night party next door to her home for the outgoing country director of the World Bank. She accused the Daily Nation‘s staff of misrepresenting the events and berated the staff.

Media groups in Africa hoped to use the day to focus attention on restrictive laws, such as Kenya’s criminal libel law, which African leaders use to quash dissent.

Most African nations also have so-called “insult laws”, which forbid the media from any reporting that could be considered derogatory to the country’s leadership.

“This is one of those coincidences that helps to highlight the difficulties we face all the time,” said Wangethi Mwangi, the Daily Nation‘s editorial director. “This sort of intrusion into our freedoms sends shivers down your spine.”

The worldwide observance fell at a treacherous time for journalists: media advocacy groups say 2004 was the deadliest year for journalists in recent memory.
Some were hunted down and killed.

In Sweden, the main journalists’ union and other media organisations held a 24-hour vigil on Tuesday at Sergel’s Square in central Stockholm to demand the release of journalist Dawit Isaak, a Swedish citizen imprisoned in his native Eritrea since 2001.

Isaak (40) was one of several journalists arrested after demanding press freedom in Eritrea. Its government has ignored Swedish requests for his release.

Under a cold rain and a banner marked “Free Dawit”, journalists handed out fliers.

“It’s sad that this is needed,” said Bengt Braun, head of the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association. “But we need to put pressure on these murderer regimes who imprison people for their opinions.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists in New York listed the Philippines, Iraq, Colombia, Bangladesh and Russia as the five deadliest spots for journalists over the past five years.

On Tuesday in the Philippines, journalists vowed to defend their profession. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said 23 journalists were killed in the past three years, and 66 have been murdered since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986.

“We will not be cowed. We will not be silenced. You will not steal democracy from the Filipino people,” it said in a statement. “Those who want the attacks to bring on a chilling effect on Philippine media will find journalists more determined to unearth the truth.”

In Nepal, about 1 500 reporters marched through the capital, Kathmandu, demanding an immediate end to government censorship and the release of colleagues detained since King Gyanendra seized power in February.

Journalists in Nepal are barred from criticising the king, his government and the security forces. Independent radio stations have been banned from broadcasting any news at all. Dozens of reporters have been arrested in the past three months and 12 remain in jail.

In Thailand, journalists accused the government of interfering with news coverage, harassing the media and undermining press freedom, but vowed to continue to fight corruption and the lack of transparency.

Advocacy groups say false arrest, imprisonment, beatings, intimidation and the use of press or emergency laws are used against journalists in different parts of the world.

Reporters sans Frontières, which helped set up the annual observance, said Iraq remains the worst place to be a journalist, but new threats have emerged in places such as Africa and Bangladesh.

The group released a report on Tuesday on the 56 journalists or their assistants killed in Iraq since the war began more than two years ago—only seven fewer than during the conflict in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975.

“It goes to show how we’re in a period of violence that is beyond common measure,” group president Robert Menard said by telephone, “when more people are taking aim at journalists, and wars are more and more dangerous for the press.”

Nineteen reporters and 12 of their assistants were killed in Iraq last year, Reporters sans Frontières said. So far this year, 22 journalists have been killed—nine of them in Iraq.

The group says 53 journalists were killed on the job in 2004, the most in a decade. Another 107 were imprisoned by January 1.—Sapa-AP

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