It is said that information is power. To stay in power, corrupt individuals and groups around the world censor, jail, and even kill journalists who reveal information about criminality and abuse of office. As VOA's Peter Fedynsky reports, journalists today face a wide range of risks - from legalized harassment to outright murder.
Journalist Madi Ceesay has challenged the rulers of his native Gambia to understand that power is not about the privilege of riding in a limousine, but the responsibility of serving ordinary people.
Ceesay was in the United States recently to receive a Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ, a non-governmental watchdog group. He says Gambian authorities view independent reporters as agents of political rivals, rather than advocates for the oppressed. Ceesay says his imprisonment in 2000 and 2006 sent a warning to other journalists.
"The message is fear … fear and fear and fear," Ceesay said. "Because, actually, when I am arrested and I am badly treated to the point of torture, and my colleagues get to know about it, they think twice about what they do."
Iraqi journalist Atwar Bahjat was also honored with the Press Freedom Award -posthumously. She was one of about 80 journalists killed in Iraq since 2003. And Hayatullah Khan of Pakistan was one of nearly 600 journalists murdered worldwide since 1992. Khan died in June after his report about the death of a senior al-Qaida figure contradicted the government's account.
The Committee to Protect Journalists says 85 percent of journalist killings are not prosecuted, and the perpetrators - autocrats, warlords and drug dealers - remain at large.
CPJ's executive director, Joel Simon, says journalists today face a new challenge from what he calls "democritators," authoritarian rulers, who adopt a democratic façade to subvert democracy.
"It means that we have to expend considerable energy documenting these more sophisticated and subtle kinds of abuses, publicizing them and explaining to the world and to our constituents what is actually going on," Simon said. "These abuses are more hidden."
Simon applies the term "democritator" to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government has passed new laws that restrict the activities of the media, non-governmental organizations and human rights groups.
Mr. Putin has also been criticized for what many see as a belated and lukewarm reaction to the shooting death of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of the Russian leader and the war in Chechnya. At her funeral, the British ambassador to Moscow, Anthony Brenton, said the Kremlin is aware that Politkovskaya's murder was not an isolated incident.
"They know the death of journalists of this kind is a sickness of Russia, which they need to deal with to turn Russia (in)to the sort of democracy and the society, which they and we want to see (it) to become," he said.
The last journalist murdered in the United States was Manuel de Dios Unanue, a reporter for Spanish-language daily, El Diario, in New York City. He died in 1992 while revealing Colombian drug cartel activity in New York. The last English-language journalist in the United States to be silenced was Donald Bolles. He died in a 1972 bomb blast during a mafia investigation in Arizona. Nearly 40 journalists flooded the state to continue his investigation, resulting in the murderer's conviction.
Christopher Simpson, a journalism professor at American University in Washington, attributes the relative safety of American journalists to the absence of systemic corruption in the United States. But Simpson says it is dangerous to expose individual politicians in countries where most or all officials are corrupt.
"The others know this, and so the system, as such, will turn against that reporter," he noted. "That's dangerous, and that is how and why literally hundreds of reporters in the last few years have lost their lives."
The names of those journalists are inscribed on a memorial in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington, Gambia's Madi Ceesay is aware that his name could someday be added. Nonetheless, he says he risks his life, because, as he puts it, "someone has to speak on behalf of the speechless."