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Reports Reflect a Dangerous Year for Journalists - 2002-05-03

World Press Freedom Day has been marked by an assessment of conditions journalists face in their reporting. Two reports by journalism organizations say that press freedom has been in crisis since the September 11 attacks, and journalists are increasingly under threat.

The murder of Wall Street Journal newspaper reporter Daniel Pearl has drawn world-wide attention to the dangers journalists face trying to do their job. Mr. Pearl, working on an investigative story on Muslim extremists in Pakistan, was kidnapped in January and brutally killed.

In an interview conducted by the United Nations, Mr. Pearl's widow, journalist Marianne Pearl, says many reporters used to take their safety for granted. "The truth is that journalists used to think that because they were journalists, no one would touch them. They were kind of a protected community," she said. "Obviously [that] is no longer true."

Two watchdog groups, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Border based in Paris agree - press freedom is under assault. Both organizations have released reports describing deteriorating conditions for journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 37 news reporters died doing their jobs last year.

Reporters Without Borders found that last year, 500 journalists were arrested, more than 700 were threatened or physically attacked and nearly 400 media outlets were censured. All those figures increased from the previous year.

Committee to Protect Journalists Director Ann Cooper says military campaigns that followed the September 11 attacks created a climate that further threatened press freedom in both authoritarian regimes and democratic countries. Ms. Cooper says that eight journalists were killed covering the war in Afghanistan, where she says the U.S. government often hampered independent reporting.

"Globally, what journalists are facing now is a worldwide press freedom crisis. And much of it does stem from the attacks on September 11 and the subsequent U.S. military actions taken in the name of fighting terrorism," she said. "We've just been seeing a general deterioration in press freedom conditions and more governments willing to use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to crack down the press."

Ms. Cooper says obstacles journalists face in the West Bank is a striking example of violations of press freedom during so-called campaigns against terrorism. The West Bank tops the group's list of the 10 most dangerous places to be a journalist.

"And the very worst situation of them all has been in the West Bank, particularly in the last few weeks, where we've seen the Israeli government put a ban on all journalists from the areas where it launched its military incursion," she said. "We've had cases of the Israeli Defense Force using threats, intimidation and sometimes even potentially lethal force to prevent journalists from covering those military operations."

The Committee to Protect Journalists singled out Colombia as the second most dangerous place to be a journalist. It says 29 journalists were killed in the last decade in Colombia, where reporters face serious risks covering drug trafficking, corruption and violence by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups.

The third most dangerous place is Afghanistan, and Eritrea, is number four. Since September, the private press has been banned there and at least 13 reporters are behind bars.

Although press freedom has improved in Yugoslavia since the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the Committee to Protect Journalists says reporters continue to face enormous challenges in Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran, Kyrgystan and Cuba.

Chairman of the World Press Freedom Committee James Ottaway Jr., a vice president of the company that owns The Wall Street Journal, spoke of the loss of reporter Danny Pearl at the United Nations for World Press Freedom Day. Mr. Ottaway says press freedom is a basic human right that must be safeguarded.

"Press freedom is the oxygen of human freedom. And like oxygen in the air we take it too much for granted in advanced democratic nations," he said. "We do not condemn often enough the constant violations of free speech and basic press freedom in roughly two-thirds of the countries which are members of the U.N."

Mr. Ottaway says that only 20 percent of the world population enjoys a completely free press. That, he says, is a very sad statistic.