More journalists were killed in Iraq this year than in any other country. Most died in cross fire or accidents during the war. However, as much of the world remains focused on the ongoing conflict in Iraq, journalists in other parts of the world are being targeted and sometimes murdered for the stories they are pursuing. VOA's Brent Hurd reports the recent case of a well-respected French journalist who was assassinated in the Ivory Coast and looks at the dangers other members of the press face today.
On the night of October 21, French journalist Jean Helene waited outside police headquarters in the commercial capital, Abidjan. He wanted to talk with opposition activists who were about to be released after being held for an alleged assassination plot. A police officer approached Mr. Helene and witnesses say after a heated exchange, shot him in the head at close range. The murder is currently under investigation. The lawyer of the police officer claims his client did not fire the fatal shot. But many African leaders and international organizations have condemned the shooting as a political assassination.
Jean Helene's voice was well known across Africa, where he had worked for Radio France International, or RFI over the past 15 years.
Loick Berrou, bureau chief of the French television station TF1 in Washington, says “Jean Helene was a brand name in French speaking Africa. He was telling quite bluntly what was happening in that country and some people were not happy about it.”
Mr. Berrou first met Mr. Helene while reporting in East Africa. Mr. Berrou spent 48 hours in jail with him during a coup in the Comoros Islands. He says Mr. Helene knew the risks he faced as a reporter. “He was always at the crossroads of ethnic hatreds. He was a permanent object of death threats wherever he was, and I was with him in Burundi and Rwanda during the genocide in 1994 and 1995. Wherever he would go they would hate him because he was always fair and balanced, but in these kinds of situations you are never fair and balanced enough for the parties who are in conflict.”
Mr. Berrou says Jean Helene understood that in Africa, patience is crucial to getting a story. Despite his popularity, he remained low-key and dedicated to objective reporting. Mr. Berrou says he stood out among journalists. “He was the most gentle, discreet, low-profile 'grand reporter' as we say in France, that I had ever seen. He had a very deep rooted affection for Africa. He lived there in spite of the risks he knew he would encounter. He chose it for his own reasons, his own affections. That was his land.”
Radio France International is one of the most respected and influential media outlets in French-speaking Africa. RFI delivers international, national and local news across the continent twenty-four hours a day. It's a direct communication link between France and its former colonies.
But RFI has its critics. In recent years, RFI journalists in Africa have been threatened frequently, and Mr. Helene's predecessor was forced to leave the country. Reporters Without Borders, a group that defends journalists worldwide, says the Ivorian government accuses the international press and particularly RFI of sympathizing with anti-government rebels, who now control the northern part of the nation.
Tala Dowlatshahi is the U.S. representative for Reporters Without Borders. “The communications ministry and state run media have joined sensationalist privately owned papers to encourage people to believe the foreign press was partly, if not completely responsible for the war, thus making working conditions for foreign journalists even more dangerous."
In September 2002, civil war broke out between north and south, and thousands were killed. Although the fighting has stopped, Ivory Coast remains split in two, with rebels controlling the north. Tensions remain high and the country continues to be wracked by fears of coup plots and assassination conspiracies. Tala Dowlatshahi says the killing of Mr. Helene attempted to strike fear in the press and discourage reporting on groups opposed to the central government.
Like Jean Helene, more journalists are murdered for their work than are killed covering war zones. Joel Simon is Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization that monitors press freedom around the world. “Year after year the number of journalists killed goes up and down, but it corresponds roughly to the extent of combat around the world. The vast majority, or 75 % are not killed in cross-fire; they are hunted down and they are murdered in reprisal for their work. Very few people who carry out these murders are apprehended, prosecuted and convicted.”
Joel Simon adds that these murderers get away with such violence in countries that have a weak or non-existent judicial system. He says Russia, Colombia, and the Philippines are particularly dangerous for journalists. Recently, two editors from the only independent newspaper of the western Russian city of Togliatti were brutally murdered. “Overall you have a situation in which you have a judicial system that is simply not functioning and in which powerful figures in those societies who don't want there actions to be scrutinized and presented before the public know they can use violence to silence critics and that they can get away with it.”
Press freedom groups like the Committee to Project Journalists document all attacks against journalists to keep the public aware of such acts and to foster freedom of the press.
Tala Dowlatshahi of Reporters Without Borders says reporters are facing new kinds of danger. “The trend is going toward journalists no longer being considered as objective viewers of conflict or war. They are now becoming direct targets almost in a symbolic way, being attacked to demonstrate that this journalist is in an opposition group or this journalist is working for the state.”
Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists agrees. He says since the beginning of the so-called war on terror, journalists face greater risks of being targeted for their nationality. He cites last year's grisly murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl as an example.
However, there is good news. Mr. Simon believes in the long run, press freedom is spreading. The number of independent reporters and news organizations around the world have increased dramatically: “While it remains very dangerous to be a journalist in many countries, there is certainly greater press freedom around the world today than there was one or two decades ago. There is certainly a greater public awareness that individuals in any society have a basic international right to express their views and to seek and receive information.”
Journalists will continue to face violent reprisal for their work by regime henchmen, armed groups, organized crime figures and sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Helene, police officers. Yet the global expansion of independent news outlets and greater telecommunication links mean that many of these threats will be reported and denounced.