2012 deadliest year for journalists – Violence and repressive laws take heavy toll on press freedom

This year of continuing change in the world of news media has also been marked by an appalling and disturbing truth: an unprecedented 132 journalists were killed in the line of duty or as a consequence of their reporting in 2012.

This year’s figure is the highest since the International Press Institute (IPI) started systematically keeping track of journalists’ death in 1997. The previous record high was in 2009, when 110 journalists were killed – 32 of them in the infamous Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines. Last year, IPI counted a total of 102 journalists who lost their lives because of their reporting.

A number of factors contributed to the increase in the death toll in 2012. On one hand, traditionally dangerous countries for journalists – including Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil – have failed to implement policies to limit attacks against journalists. On the other hand, in Syria alone at least 31 journalists and eight citizen reporters were killed while covering the conflict there.

Both pro-government and opposition forces targeted and kidnapped journalists and media workers in Syria, treating them in many instances as military targets. In mid-December, NBC News’ Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel and four others were freed after being detained for five days following a fire-fight that erupted when captors transporting them encountered a rebel checkpoint. Three other foreign journalists are believed to currently be held in Syria: Ukrainian journalist Anhar Kochneva, Jordanian-Palestinian correspondent Bashar Fahmi and freelance U.S. reporter Austin Tice.

“It is almost unbelievable that so many journalists have died this year,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said. “It is the largest number of journalists’ deaths in a single year since IPI officially began keeping count in 1997.”

Because of the difficulties faced by foreign journalists, citizen reporters have played an important role in coverage of the conflict, particularly from the civilian and rebel point of view.

The second-deadliest country for journalists in 2012 was Somalia, where IPI registered the deaths of 16 journalists, more than in any other single year over the last 15 years. Despite positive political developments and military gains against insurgents, Somalia’s instability ensured that impunity for the killers of journalists continued this year, prompting even more attacks.

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, has promised to create a task force to investigate journalists killings, a move that IPI has welcomed and that will hopefully be an effective first step in ending the cycle of violence. However, the government itself has been implicated in several press freedom violations: in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, officials shut down Horseed FM, a Netherlands-based station, after it aired critical reports, an act of censorship that IPI vigorously protested.

While the high global death toll – which included 13 women, at least a dozen junior reporters and an unusually high number of photographers – has attracted the attention of press freedom organisations around the world this year, it is not the only source of outrage. IPI has also expressed concern over increasing hostility against the media in the form of repressive media laws.

In Ethiopia this year, the government employed anti-terrorism laws to silence journalists. Though two Swedish journalists arrested in 2011 were released in September 2012 after agreeing to admit wrongdoing in exchange for a pardon, six Ethiopian journalists were not so lucky. Reyot Alemu and Woubshet Taye have been in prison since June 2011 and are each serving 14-year sentences for conspiracy to commit terrorism, participation in a terrorist organisation and money laundering. Eskinder Nega was jailed in September 2011 and is serving an 18-year sentence for participating in a terrorist organisation and money laundering. Three other journalists are also in prison on other charges.

The use of anti-terrorism laws; many of them passed in response to the war on terror, against journalists who disseminate news and opinions critical of those in power has been a disturbing trend of the past decade,” Bethel McKenzie said. “IPI has sought to counter this trend both in conversations with legislators to limit the scope of such laws, as well as through activities aimed at increasing understanding of the narrow legitimate applicability of anti-terrorism laws, which should not interfere with press freedom.

In Egypt, legal and political battles over the county’s new constitution and composition of the constituent assembly took centre stage, with observers fearing that the constitution could negatively affect press freedom. In November, the 234 articles of the country’s new draft constitution were approved by the constituent assembly. Egyptians approved the charter earlier this month and on Dec. 25 President Mohamed Morsi signed a decree that put into effect the controversial constitution. Supporters of the document say it enshrines the values that led to the recent revolution, but opponents fear articles outlawing the insult of individuals or religions could be used to restrict commentary and public debate.

In Israel, IPI’s 27-member Executive Board unanimously spoke out in support of journalist Uri Blau, who was charged with possessing classified documents under the country’s Espionage Act. Eventually, a Tel Aviv court accepted a plea deal under which Blau admitted to possessing classified information in exchange for four months of community service in place of jail time. In response to international criticism, the court reportedly said it was forced to choose between the “competing values” of state security and press freedom, but that in the end, “state security trumped the rights and obligations of journalists, as without state security there would be no state and no newspapers in the first place”.

IPI’s Executive Board members underscored the apparent public interest served by publishing the grave allegations contained in Blau’s articles, and recalled that journalists everywhere, especially in democracies, have a fundamental right to use leaked documents as a foundation for stories of public interest. The Board members urged the Israeli authorities to recognise that right by dropping all related charges currently pending against Blau.

In a June 1 editorial, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper noted that “issues of war and peace, foreign relations and military operations are at the heart of Israeli public life and take a central place in the country’s political and media discourse. For that discourse to take place, there must be reliable media reports from the inner sanctums of senior diplomatic and military officials.”

The paper added: “Such media reporting must of necessity rely on ‘possessing secret reports,’ in the words of the Penal Code. There’s no way to cover the Prime Minister’s Office, the defense and foreign ministries, the IDF and the intelligence community without obtaining documents and information that is classified at some level.

Violence against journalists continued to affect multiple Latin American countries this year, reflecting both a lack of tolerance for independent, critical reporting as well as verbal and legal harassment of journalists and media outlets by government representatives at the highest levels.

A total of seven journalists were killed in Mexico this year, where the newly-elected government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has already been under great pressure to end violence against journalists, the latter a consequence not only of the ongoing armed conflict between rival drug cartels fighting both one another and Mexican government forces but also of pervasive corruption among law enforcement.

Journalists run along a street in Aleppo's district of Salaheddine on Dec. 29, 2012. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Journalists run along a street in Aleppo’s district of Salaheddine on Dec. 29, 2012. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

Years of murders, attacks, and threats against journalists in a number of Mexican states have led to ingrained self-censorship – in some cases even a complete refusal to cover political issues or crime – perceived by some editors and journalists as the only certain way to remain alive.

In condemning the murder of yet another journalist in Mexico in May of this year, IPI’s executive director commented: “It is no secret that Mexico is facing a major public safety crisis. But it should be no less obvious that journalists play an extremely critical role in Mexico by bringing the activities of drug cartels and of the corrupt politicians who support them to the public light.”

She continued: “This valuable work is the reason that journalists are being silenced, and it is also the reason that – despite the difficulties involved – the federal government must step up and bring those responsible for crimes against the media to justice.”

Five journalists were gunned down in separate incidents in Brazil, leaving 2012 tied with 2011 as the deadliest year for Brazilian journalists since IPI record-keeping began in 1997. In a special report published in March, IPI expressed concern over a rise in violent attacks against journalists, in particular in border states such as Mato Grosso do Sul, where two of this year’s killings occurred.

Three journalists were killed in Honduras and Colombia each, and one in Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa continued to employ diverse tactics to weaken the private press, as witnessed by an IPI mission to the country in May and described in a subsequent, comprehensive special report. The methods include the pursuit of legal projects designed to weaken independent media outlets and the systematic use of offensive rhetoric — publicly disseminated through government-run media — designed to tarnish the reputations of critical journalists, publishers and press freedom groups. IPI found that tensions between a starkly-polarised media and Correa’s self-styled revolutionary government have never been higher, which has greatly affected the Ecuadorean people’s ability to access independent information.

In Argentina, a protracted legal battle over a seminal 2009 media law continued to play out between the country’s biggest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, and the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The legislation includes clauses that limit the number of cable television and open frequency licences that a single company can own and establishes a divestment procedure for companies whose holdings exceed those limits. In response to the law, Grupo Clarín — which owns 240 cable television broadcasters, 10 radio stations, four television channels and the flagship Clarín newspaper — launched a constitutional challenge, which led to a last-minute injunction blocking the divestment process until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the disputed articles.

Cuba has experienced an uptick in repression against journalists and free-speech activists in the final months of 2012. In November, IPI strongly condemned the arrest of 27 dissidents, including IPI World Press Freedom Hero Yoani Sánchez. All were later released. Also in November, a journalist formerly with the state-run newspaper Granma, José Antonio Torres, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for espionage. The charges were filed shortly after the journalist published a pair of articles containing criticism of a government aqueduct project near the town of Santiago de Cuba.

Independent Cuban journalist Calixto Ramón Martínez was arrested on Sept. 16 and later was charged with insulting Fidel and Ramón Castro under the country’s “contempt of authority” (desacato) laws. The journalist’s arrest is thought to be related to investigative coverage of an outbreak of cholera and dengue fever on the island, though the Cuban government has provided no official explanation.

In a positive development, Grenada this year become the first Caribbean country to partially repeal criminal defamation after legislators removed sections 252 and 253 from the Criminal Code in July. In welcoming the decision, IPI encouraged the government to also repeal seditious libel provisions contained in the Code. The decriminalisation of libel in Grenada is particularly significant, given that the country was one of the few in the Caribbean to have applied the law in recent years.

In welcoming Grenada’s decision on behalf of the IPI Executive Board, IPI Board Chair and head of the Foundation for Investigative Journalism – Foundation 19/29 (Russia) Galina Sidorova said the legislative changes would ”strengthen Grenadian democracy for generations to come” and that they established the country as a ”clear leader in freedom of expression guarantees in the Caribbean”.

She added: “Our view, which is supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom is Expression, is that defamation allegations are best handled by civil courts, provided that any punitive measures are proportionate and designed to restore the reputation of the plaintiff and not to punish the media.”

IPI has been campaigning for the repeal of criminal defamation laws in the Caribbean and welcomed the stated intent of government officials in the Dominican Republic Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago to decriminalise defamation, following an IPI advocacy mission to those countries in June.

In South Asia, violence against journalists in Pakistan and Nepal has been reason for concern. IPI has recorded the death of eight journalists in Pakistan as a consequence of their work. This brings to at least 48 the number of journalists who have been killed in the line of duty in Pakistan in the last 10 years, of whom 35 were deliberately targeted because of their work. IPI Executive Board Member Owais Aslam Ali, chairman of Pakistan Press International and chair of the IPI Pakistan National Committee, noted that “for every journalist who has been deliberately targeted and murdered, there are many others who have been injured, threatened and coerced into silence”.

Impunity for crimes committed against journalists in Pakistan continues to prevail in 2012. As Ali noted, of those 48 only the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 led to prosecutions and convictions.

In Nepal, one journalist was killed and numerous others were attacked or received threats in connection with their reports. The Nepalese government is still struggling to complete the transition from a monarchy to a federal republic and so far has failed to implement policies that promote access to information and journalist safety.

Both foreign and local journalists reporting in China were confronted with numerous restrictions in the lead up to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, which took place in November and saw the handover of the party’s chairmanship from President Hu Jintao to Vice President Ji Hinping.

In the months preceding the Congress, China’s central propaganda office handed down strict guidelines to the country’s media on how to cover sensitive political issues, and the Chinese government increased censorship of conversations on China’s most popular micro-blog, Sina Weibo, which reportedly has over 400 million users. Observers say that netizens were “muted” on the subject of the leadership transition and talk on Sina Weibo has been “patchy”, the BBC reported.

In a welcome development, Burma, one of the world’s most restrictive regimes, in August announced the complete abolition of pre-publication censorship for newspapers. While the statement came amid Burma’s proclaimed ambition for democratic reforms, plenty of restrictions on press freedom remain: privately-owned newspapers are not given licenses to publish daily and the censorship board will continue to monitor content after publication. Moreover, a host of repressive laws require revision to ensure respect for press freedom, including the 1962 Press & Publications Act, which gives authorities a range of powers over the press, and the 2004 Electronic Transaction Law which, as Reuters reported, provides a 15-year prison term for revealing “information relating to secrets of the security of the state”.

In Europe, the Turkish government’s interpretation of press freedom has generated much criticism this year. In numerous visits to the country, IPI urged the government to release the reported 70 journalists currently in prison – the highest of any country – and to refrain from using anti-terrorism laws to stifle press freedom.

The majority of the journalists detained in Turkey are being held on what appear to be politically-motivated charges of support for terrorism stemming from alleged connections to banned left-wing groups, right-wing ultranationalists and, in particular, Kurdish separatists. Those allegedly linked to Kurdish groups comprise the bulk of detained journalists.

At the beginning of 2012, IPI recorded nearly 100 journalists in prison in Turkey, most of them in excessively-lengthy pre-trial detentions. Throughout the year, a small number of journalists were released pending trial following strong international pressure; others were released as part of a package approved by Parliament that included an ostensible amnesty for those convicted of so-called “media crimes”. The deal, however, did not address the plight of journalists imprisoned for alleged violations of Turkey’s anti-terror laws.

In Greece, IPI registered a sharp increase in attacks and threats against journalists, many allegedly attributed to members or supporters of the right-wing Golden Dawn party, which has enjoyed growing support in the wake of the country’s financial and political crisis. The party won 6.9 percent of the vote, or 21 out of 300 seats in the Greek parliament, during elections held on May 6.

A highly-anticipated report on the public inquiry into the practises of U.K. newspapers led by Lord Justice Leveson was released on Nov. 29, amid ardent criticism of what some observers interpreted as a door-opener for statutory regulation of the press. The most controversial aspect of the Leveson report was its recommendation that elements of press regulation be written into the laws of the country in order to recognise a new self-regulatory body. Commenting on Leveson’s recommendations, IPI said that while it welcomed a number of suggestions in the report, in particular fast-track arbitration for complaints, it remained opposed to enshrining any new regulatory system in statute.

Repression of press freedom remained routine in Belarus while neighbouring Russia saw the year’s only confirmed murder in Europe of a journalist for his or her work with the Dec. 5 shooting of North Caucasus television presenter Kazbek Gekkiyev.

In North America, the United States saw a drop in the number of journalists arrested as protests associated with the Occupy movement came to an end. However, congressional efforts to enact unprecedented federal anti-leak legislation as well as Congress’ continued failure to enact legislation protecting the confidentiality of journalists’ sources remained causes of deep concern.

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