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Press Freedoms Under Siege in 2004

Journalism can be a hazardous profession. Many of the reporters killed in 2004 were in conflict zones -- nearly half died in Iraq. Others were murdered as a direct result of their reporting. Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, says “another risk is an authoritarian government that uses the power of the state to control what newspapers print and what reporters do. That is the case in China where 42 journalists are in jail -- more than any country in the world.”

Chinese officials arrested five journalists this year. Many are jailed for criticizing the Communist Party. And a growing number are arrested for publishing on the Internet. Xiao Qiang, Director at the China Internet Studies Program at the University of California in Berkeley, says “unlike traditional media, there are many, many commercial entities and even personal sites and web logs on the Internet. So the Chinese authority has a much tougher time to make the information flow on the Internet express what they wish. This is the most tense conflict between government control and freedom of expression.”

Chinese officials restrict Internet access to many on-line news sources and other sites it deems subversive. Mr. Qaing says that despite such control, the Internet and the commercialization of the media have increased press freedom in China. But new freedoms bring new dangers. Physical attacks on reporters in other Asian countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines have been common, but not in China until recently. Mr. Qaing says more Chinese journalists are being beaten because of their enterprise. “The Chinese media has become more aggressive on certain reporting and social news within political constraints,” he says. “They are trying to reach more audience to increase their market share. Chinese journalists are beginning to expose corruption or challenge the local powerful elites.”

The number of attacks has increased dramatically as more journalists face retribution for such investigative reporting. Mr. Qaing says weak enforcement of the law allows those who attack Chinese reporters to do so with impunity.

Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists says the threat of legal action against journalists takes many forms around the world. “In Russia, for example, the government largely uses the tax laws to take control of anti-government media. Throughout Eastern Europe we see governments using punitive legislation to punish journalists. In Zimbabwe there has been largely a legal assault on the press.”

In Zimbabwe, the government of President Robert Mugabe passed a law in November requiring all journalists to register with a government-controlled media commission. Any journalist that fails to do so can be jailed for up to two years. Another proposed law could send a reporter to jail for up to 20 years for publishing information the government considers damaging to the state. The Committee to Protect Journalists has called for repeal of the law since it threatens independent media. But Zimbabwean officials say it will combat irresponsible journalism. A similar law was passed this year in Gambia that authorizes lengthy jail sentences for so-called libelous reporting.

This year a controversial new media law was passed in Venezuela. Sebastian Brett, an analyst with Human Rights Watch, says “stations that promote, justify or incite public disturbances or threats to national security can be taken off the air for up to 72 hours and for a second offense they could lose their franchise for up to five years. That is an extremely draconian penalty for what is essentially a vaguely defined offense.”

The law is the latest action in a long-standing battle between President Hugo Chavez and a Venezuelan media that have strongly criticized Mr. Chavez, particularly during a general strike that briefly deposed him in 2002.

Even if not directly threatening, these laws create a fearful environment in which journalists may censor their own work to protect their safety. Even so, some reporters throughout the world will continue to face jail time, injury and even death in order to get the story out.