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Press Freedom Day Spotlights Plight of 'Citizen Journalists'


A rally in support of kidnapped British journalist Alan Johnston has highlighted United Nations observances of World Press Freedom Day. VOA's Peter Heinlein in New York reports the day also featured a discussion about the challenges faced by the new breed of "citizen journalists".

Scores of journalists and free press advocates gathered at U.N. headquarters Thursday to show solidarity with Alan Johnston, and to call for his immediate release. The BBC Middle East correspondent was captured seven weeks ago while on a reporting assignment in Gaza City, and his fate is unknown.

BBC World Editor Jon Williams urged Johnston's captors to free him. He said the kidnapped correspondent represents dangers facing journalists around the world.

"The best way to protect journalists is for civilized societies to say, "No more, enough". We need journalists as independent voices, eyes and ears of audiences around the world. Without them, the world is a poorer place," he said.

Press Freedom Day also featured a discussion of the evolving role of journalism in the internet age, in particular the phenomenon known as blogging. Bloggers, who post information online, have revolutionized journalism. So-called 'cyber dissidents' are becoming a potent force on the World Wide Web, challenging the information monopoly traditionally held by many governments.

But that challenge has been raised at a cost. Offending 'citizen journalists' have been silenced in many countries, jailed in others.

Tala Dowlatshahi of the group "Reporters Without Borders" called China the world's worst prison for cyber-dissidents. But she said other countries, including Vietnam, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and Iran are also jailing offending bloggers. "Parliaments in these countries, along with the local cyber-police, closely follow the latest technological developments. When instant messaging, such as MSN (Microsoft) Messenger became the rage, China asked these firms to automatically block some key words, making it impossible for Chinese users to talk about the Dalai Lama, and Taiwanese independence," he said.

Chinese cyber-journalist Frank Xie of the Boxun News web site says China's bloggers have to be careful about what they post online, because the Beijing government keeps a close eye on internet activity.

"The sad thing about Chinese bloggers is they are actually under self-censorship because they are keenly aware of what they are facing. Their activities on the internet are closely monitored by the 30-thousand plus in the internet police," he said.

Citizen journalist Nora Younis is well-known and widely quoted among the growing internet community in Egypt. She says the number of bloggers in Egypt has grown from one in 2003 to more than 10-thousand today, and is doubling every six months.

She says 'citizen journalists' have played a role in casting a spotlight on social injustices, and also on vote fraud in Egypt's recent elections. "Bloggers posted video of vote rigging inside the poll stations. Bloggers were also able in Egypt to bring the issue of sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo and they were able to force it on mainstream media, which in the beginning did not respond to claims of sexual harassment in Cairo streets," she said.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a Press Freedom Day statement saying it is alarming that journalists trying to shed light on suffering of others become targets themselves. He noted that 150 media professionals lost their lives in the line of duty last year, and said it is the world body's job to be an unflinching defender of press freedom.