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South Asia's Journalists Seek Greater Protection from Governments

Foreign ministers from several South Asian nations have pledged to take seriously the concerns of the region's journalists who say they are facing increasing violence. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from Colombo where the annual summit the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC, has just concluded.

A regional journalists' group affiliated with SAARC, the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, has called on government leaders to take steps to stem the rising number of attacks on reporters.

At least 10 journalists were killed in South Asia during the first seven months of this year.

More than 100 members of South Asia Free Media Association, known as SAFMA, meeting here in conjunction with SAARC issued a Colombo Declaration. It calls on SAARC member states to take measures to protect journalists from violence. The declaration expresses deep concern about murders, deliberate attacks, hostage-taking and other violent actions and threats targeting journalists.

Latif Mal Shinwary is a university language lecturer and part-time reporter for the Radio Killid network in Afghanistan. He says the declaration could be a lifesaver in a country where reporting is a poorly understood and hazardous occupation. He says extremists are not the ones responsible for the deaths of journalists in Afghanistan.

"SAFMA [South Asia Foreign Ministers Association] should talk to the NATO forces and to the Afghan government that they must not murder journalists and do not kill journalists," said Latif Mal Shinwary. "SAFMA is a regional organization. SAFMA should broadcast the problems of Afghan journalists to the world."

SAFMA, which has received funding from the United Nations Development Program, as well as the governments of Norway and the Netherlands, is regarded as an influential organization in the region. Besides campaigning for greater rights for journalists and their protection, the group has been involved in confidence building in the conflict-ridden neighborhood. Both Indian and Pakistani officials have praised SAFMA for helping to ease cross-border tensions.

Speaking to the group, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, said SAFMA represents an important voice of the region's civil society and its concerns should be taken seriously.

"We would like to look into those aspects and to implement them, whatever is possible to implement as fast as possible," said Pranab Mukherjee.

Several other foreign ministers of SAARC member states, including Bhutan, Maldives and Pakistan, personally made similar expressions of support.

SAFMA secretary general Imtiaz Alam says the simplest promisesby SAARC to journalists have not been kept. For example, at last year's summit in New Delhi foreign minister agreed to allow 50 journalists from each member country to obtain area-wide visas for reporting.

"The problem with the SAARC is that is very rich in pronouncements and very poor in practice," said Imtiaz Alam. "In fact, now, there are nine bureaucracies within SAARC Secretariat itself who enter the whole process. They even do not fulfill their responsibility towards us being an associate body, for example. They do not like civil society intervention in the processes."

Pakistan's foreign minister, Sham Mahmood Qureshi, says South Asia's journalists, as representatives of civil society and the people, are more advanced than the region's governments on the democratic path.

"And we must recognize that - that we are trailing behind and not living up to the expectations of the people," said Sham Mahmood Qureshi.

Along those lines, SAFMA is making a strong push to pry open secretive governments.

Few South Asian nations have freedom of information laws. Instead they retain what critics see as a legacy of the colonial era with official secrets acts and other laws preventing reporters from accessing records they insist should be open to the public.

SAFMA's Alam, a Pakistani journalist, tells VOA News even where freedom of information legislation is progressing, so far it is of little practical value to reporters.

"There are laws like in India," he said. "And in Pakistan it is in the process of being legislated. But despite the laws, as such, the right is not recognized legally even if it mentioned in the constitutions. And in other countries there is no law. We want that this right is recognized and practiced."

SAARC has pledged for years to move towards relaxing border controls and allow people and goods to move throughout the region. Journalists' organizations in the region say that should also include the movement of reporters across borders, as well as their printed publications and news broadcasts.