Perils for press in a lethal world Intimidation: To the Committee to Protect Journalists, the murder of a journalist is an attack on society at large. It says 26 were killed last year for doing their jobs and 129 were jailed.


It is often tempting to murder a nosy journalist, but it isn't always effective. When a fisherman found Jose Luis Cabezas' charred, handcuffed corpse inside a burned rental car on Jan. 25, 1997, the Argentine photographer's cause did not, as his assassins must have hoped, fall silent.

Cabezas had succeeded in getting a photograph of Alfredo Yabran, a reclusive businessmen who had amassed a $500 million fortune through government contracts and sweetheart deals on government privatizations. Yabran also was rumored to have ties to criminal syndicates. But if Yabran, or somebody close to him, thought that murdering a pesky shutterbug would keep his dealings out of the public eye, he was wrong.

Journalists and ordinary Argentines took to the streets to demand that President Carlos Menem's government find and prosecute the murderers. Demonstrations persisted throughout the year -- horn-honking traffic tie-ups, low-speed motorcades to the murder site, moments of eerie silence in packed soccer stadiums.

Intimidation followed. Journalists investigating Cabezas' killing were physically threatened. The hand of one journalist's sister was slashed. But eventually Yabran's security chief and several police officers, former and current, were charged with carrying out the murder.

That was not the end of the fallout. Menem's justice minister was forced to resign when it was learned that he had been taking phone calls from Yabran. Menem himself muttered in frustration that journalists deserved "the law of the stick," then had to explain that he was joking. He wasn't laughing in October when a visiting President Clinton lectured him on freedom of expression, or when he lost his parliamentary majority in elections later that month.

For the Committee to Protect Journalists, the murder of a journalist is not an attack on a person but on society at large. And in this case, Argentine society recognized that it was the target and showed its solidarity with journalists and their work.

The committee is an independent organization, based in New York, that works to safeguard press freedom around the world. Its annual report, released yesterday, lists 26 journalists in 14 countries who were killed last year for doing their jobs. In addition, at least 129 were imprisoned in 24 countries. The committee publicizes their names and stories and issues reports on the progress of press freedom in the world.

Ironically, as things get better, they get worse. The world is freer, but with more independent journalists taking advantage of freedom, there are more acts of retaliation and intimidation.

Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union offer an example. About 75 journalists have been killed in seven of these countries in the past decade, including 32 in Russia and 29 in Central Asian Tajikistan.

"Yet it would be absurd," writes William A. Orme Jr., executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, "to conclude that there was less press freedom in Russia in 1997 than in 1987." It was unnecessary to kill journalists in the old Soviet Union because there were none working independently of the regime.

In other countries, journalism was not repressed but corrupted. For years, Mexico's government has controlled its press through bribes, kickbacks and distributing or withholding government advertising. Neither reporters nor publishers had any incentive to bite the hand that fed it.

That system has broken down as Mexico's traditionally one-party political system has begun to liberalize -- and as the Zapatista rebellion broke out in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The bosses of television and the press are discovering that Mexicans will pay for real news.

But with independent reporting comes retaliation. A reporter and two news executives were murdered in Mexico last year. All had been tracking official corruption, the drug trade or possible links between the two.

Journalists are slain in the United States, too, although none were last year. Eleven have been killed in the line of duty in the past two decades. The deaths received little publicity, because in all cases but one they involved immigrant journalists working in languages other than English. Five recent murders targeted Vietnamese-American journalists apparently caught in intra-ethnic rivalries.

The most dangerous place in the world for a journalist, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is Algeria. "Those who fight with the pen shall die by the sword," an Islamic insurgent group has warned, and, indeed, 56 newsmen were murdered in Algeria from 1993 through 1996.

There are fewer corpses lately. Many Algerian journalists have fled into exile or quit the profession. Those who continue to try to cover Algeria's 6-year-old civil conflict have gone underground, reporting under pseudonyms, living and working in guarded compounds -- and dodging legal reprisals by the military government. The committee has documented at least 19 prosecutions of journalists for reporting on forbidden topics -- which include Islamist viewpoints, guerrilla activities and government human rights abuses.

Ranking behind Algeria on the committee's list of the 10 worst offenders against press freedom are the governments of China, Cuba, Nigeria, Turkey, Belarus, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Albania.

What about North Korea? What about Iraq? The committee is sometimes accused of a double standard for issuing reports about countries such as Mexico and Turkey while ignoring some of the most repressive societies on earth.

Orme acknowledges that "most of the approximately 100

countries CPJ routinely covers are neither the best nor the very worst examples." Rather than rail at closed systems that are unlikely to change, he explains, "We focus our advocacy work on behalf of local journalists in countries where international opinion is likely to have influence."

Sometimes the committee practices a form of moral jujitsu -- using an adversary's strength against him. Last year's top research and advocacy priority was Turkey, which had 74 journalists in prison -- more than the next four countries combined.

The committee organized a campaign of letters and visits to Turkish politicians and diplomats in which it eschewed human rights lectures in favor of an appeal to Turkey's long-standing desire to be regarded as a Westernized, business-oriented democracy worthy of membership in the European Union.

The committee chose as its emblematic case Ocak Isik Yurtcu, editor of a pro-Kurdish daily, who had been sentenced to 15 years and 10 months in prison under the Anti-Terror Law. The strategy was to win Yurtcu's freedom as a concession and then press for freedom for other journalists sentenced for similar offenses.

The point man was Terry Anderson, the former Associated Press reporter who was held hostage in Lebanon for seven years. No one could tell such a man that free-speech advocates simply do not understand the threat of armed extremists.

A midyear change of government helped. A more secular group of politicians replaced an Islamist-dominated coalition. Here was an opportunity, the committee urged the new Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz and his representatives, to restore Turkey's image in the West.

The delegation organized a round table in Istanbul to discuss with Turkish journalists their working frustrations. Then, accompanied by about 100 Turkish journalists and Turkey's most celebrated novelist, the delegation traveled by bus to Yurtcu's prison in a remote town in northwestern Turkey and presented him with a Press Freedom award.

The campaign succeeded. Yurtcu and 46 other journalists were released. The Turkish editor spoke with amazement at the work of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"I look at CPJ as a kind of giant crane that suddenly appeared overhead and plucked me out of jail."

But it wasn't so sudden. It took a lot of work to operate that crane. And there are still 29 journalists in Turkish jails.

Pub Date: 3/27/98

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