International journalists in jail

Friday, April 24, 2009 | 3:14 p.m. CDT

Stuart H. Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: For the past couple of weeks, a lot of attention has been paid to the plight of Roxanna Saberi, a 31-year-old American-Iranian journalist. She was charged at first with buying a bottle of wine, then with reporting without proper credentials. She had a one-day trial behind closed doors last weekend and was sentenced to eight years in prison for espionage. A Canadian-Iranian blogger, also charged with espionage, has been in jail in Iran since November awaiting trial. There are also two women with American passports awaiting trial in North Korea for coming across the Chinese border without documents to report for Current TV, founded by former Vice President Al Gore. There are currently 125 journalists in jail around the world on charges that relate to their work. Along with the murder and beatings of hundreds of journalists in the past 20 years, press freedom is under attack, and pursuing it is not an easy way to make a living in many countries. Why is Saberi getting so much more attention than other journalists, and do you think the Iranian authorities are going to bow to worldwide pressure and let her free?

Robert Mahoney, deputy director, Committee to Protect Journalists, New York: We have gotten the attention of the Iranian government with the protest petitions and publicity that press freedom groups around the world have given to this case. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he hopes the case is treated fairly. He also mentioned the Canadian blogger, Hossein Derakhshan. We hope this publicity will help him too, and the pair of them will be released.

Loory: What is being done by the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels to help deal with imprisoned journalists?

Ernest Sagaga, human rights and communications officer, International Federation of Journalists, Brussels, Belgium: In Saberi’s case, we are writing to the Iranian government and to the U.N. Secretary General, as well, to appeal for intervention quickly. I am also trying to arrange a meeting with the Iranian foreign minister, who is here in Brussels. In general, IFJ always monitors violations of journalists’ rights and denounces these violations whenever they take place.

Loory: In most cases, this is not too effective. How effective is Reporters Without Borders?

Lucie Morillon, Washington director, Reporters Without Borders, Washington, D.C.: It is always hard to assess the level of efficiency. We would like to be even more effective... So far this year, despite a more hostile climate for freedom of the press and Internet repression, fewer journalists have been killed than last year. But the situation is very worrying. Governments sometimes use imprisonment more to silence journalists. It sends signals that if reporters write the same things, they will be in jail with their colleagues. We have many instances of journalists released who recognized that people were talking about what they did, writing stories about them and trying to raise public awareness. This gives people hope while they are in jail; what they did was not in vain.

Loory: Are the other five journalists jailed in Iran also foreign nationals or are they local?

Morillon: They are local. The huge majority of journalists in jail around the world are local. They are at the forefront of the fight for freedom of expression. They are not only sent to jail, but they and their families also receive threats.

Loory: The International Press Institute in Vienna is almost 60 years old; what has it done over the years to deal with the problems that journalists face?

Tim Spence, communications manager, International Press Institute, Vienna, Austria: IPI has a reputation for using a combination of quiet diplomacy and pressure. We deal directly with heads of government through letters. We go to countries, talk to politicians, trying to encourage them to promote free press. We testify before government bodies on press freedom issues and try to amend legislation that we believe attacks press freedom. A recent example is in Gambia, Africa; the courts recently dropped a case against a journalist who was repeatedly charged with various bogus charges.

Loory: Why is it important that this publicity take place and that the general public around the world is informed of the plight of journalists?

Mahoney: One of the first signs of a repressive government is when journalists are being locked up. If you do not keep the spotlight on a government and the way it treats the press, then the government gets away with it. This is not just a number’s game. Some countries don’t need to imprison lots of journalists, like in China or Cuba, they just need to imprison one and it serves warning to everybody else not to cross the red line. We need to defend that one person in jail because if we don’t, there will be no free press in that particular country.

Sagaga: It is appropriate to have publicity campaigns when colleagues are in prison, but IFJ also tries to attack the problem at its source. That is to campaign for all press laws in all countries to be decriminalized.

Loory: Why is it that Current TV has said nothing about the two women arrested in North Korea? Their Web site has nothing about them.

Sagaga: In some circumstances, there may be reasons why employers want to have a quiet diplomacy. We believe that we have to speak out, now.

Loory: International Reporters for Free Speech from Baku, Azerbaijan, is an organization that has been very active in a country that has been repressive towards the press. As a result, the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, has ordered that journalists be released. Why is it that in other countries it is not working?

Morillon: Countries eager to have a good image on the international stage, or receive assistance from foreign countries, are more willing to improve. A local society actively pressing for the release of reporters helps. One of the first things the president of Chad said after releasing jailed reporters was, “Now that we have released these journalists, are we going to be better ranked on Reporters Without Borders’s next press freedom index?” In China, some reporters knew about the tainted milk scandal three months before it was revealed. They were afraid to publish it because the censors told them not to publish anything about toxic food before the Olympic Games. This is a case of criminal censorship and shows how freedom of the press is in the general public’s interest.

Loory: Murders of journalists generally go unsolved in most every place around the world. What is being done to deal with that problem?

Mahoney: Eighty-five percent of journalists’ murders go completely unsolved; 100 percent in some countries. In countries like Mexico, Gambia and Eritrea, journalists just disappear. It is even worse for the families; they have no news. The police picked up a journalist in Gambia nearly two years ago, and we know nothing of him. The Inter-American Press Association has had some success reducing the rate of impunity and murders of journalists in Latin America. CPJ launched a campaign in the Philippines and Russia, where journalists’ murders traditionally go unsolved.

Loory: How closely do the various press freedom organizations around the world work with each other?

Morillon: We send joint fact-finding missions in countries that have been imprisoning journalists; one was in Sri Lanka a few months ago. There are also joint statements signed by members of a network of free press organizations. It is important for all organizations based in the same country to react at the same time to give more publicity to the case.

Spence: Frequently we all work closely with groups in the countries, which is sometimes the most effective way of getting information and getting to the right people.

Morillon: RWB has about a dozen partner organizations around the world. They are local organizations, like Journalists in Danger in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Working with them brings good results because they have good local contacts with the journalists there, and we bring international credibility and publicity.

Sagaga: The victims of killings are usually local journalists, who are killed reporting on local stories in their communities.

Mahoney: American media organizations are very aware of the dangers that local journalists face around the world; all of them depend upon local journalists. Nothing has brought this home more clearly than the Iraq conflict. It was impossible for about three or four years for Western journalists to go out on the streets of Baghdad; all of the reporting was done by local Iraqis.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo and Melissa Ulbricht.

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