For some, a profession to die for Journalists: A New York group provides moral support for journalists worldwide who labor despite risk of assault, imprisonment and even murder.

Sun Journal

March 14, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

In 1994, when Dapo Olorunyomi started getting phone calls from a distant planet called New York, they seemed not a lifeline but a distraction.

He was an editor in Nigeria struggling to publish three weekly magazines despite the threat of imprisonment or worse from a brutal regime. The callers said they were from the Committee to Protect Journalists; they were offering moral support.

"I'm afraid I may have sounded ungrateful," Olorunyomi says. "I was like a man marooned on an island for many years. Someone arrives to help you, and you're too numb to respond

appropriately."

But over the next couple of years, as he was imprisoned and tortured, his wife and 3-month-old son were briefly jailed and his office was firebombed, he came to appreciate the New York group, Olorunyomi says. CPJ's regular phone contacts, its lobbying for the independent Nigerian press and its letter-writing campaigns -- all were proof at least that someone was paying attention.

"We were surprised they would call so often. We'd tell them what had happened -- these three reporters picked up by police, this editor beaten, and so on," he says. "This gave Nigerian journalists a little sense of hope, a feeling they were not alone."

Finally, a Nigerian government minister denounced "a useless, imperialist organization in America" for meddling. Olorunyomi says it was then that he realized CPJ was having an impact.

Early last year, as a colleague was sentenced to 15 years for treason, Olorunyomi fled Nigeria. With CPJ's help, he sought asylum in the United States. Now Olorunyomi, 38, works in Washington, awaiting a time it will be safe to return to work in Nigeria.

Report on 1996 attacks

From shoestring beginnings in 1981, when a few American correspondents returning from overseas talked over what they could do for foreign colleagues facing oppression at home, CPJ has grown into a $1 million-a-year operation with 15 full-time and five part-time employees. Today it is releasing a 376-page report titled "Attacks on the Press in 1996," a dispiriting annual account of journalists assaulted, jailed or assassinated for doing their job.

This year's report shows a significant drop in murders -- down to 26 documented homicides from 51 in 1995. In some places, that marks real progress: No journalists have been killed in Bosnia and Croatia in the past two years.

Elsewhere, the drop in the death toll is a sign of attrition and intimidation. In the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, where government forces and rebels have murdered 29 journalists since 1992, only one was killed in 1996.

"There's no one left to shoot at," says William A. Orme Jr., 43, a veteran correspondent and author on Latin America who is CPJ's executive director.

Some 185 journalists were locked up at the end of 1996, the highest number since CPJ began keeping track, the report says. The worst offender by far is a self-described democracy and NATO member: Turkey, where 78 journalists are imprisoned.

Such numbers are not a measure of press freedom. North Korea gets only passing mention in the report; journalists there are loyal civil servants. Jailings and killings are most frequent in countries in transition, Orme says, where the press is testing new freedom or suffering a crackdown.

CPJ gets most of its support from news organizations. Behind many donations are the guilt feelings of American journalists whose most serious complaint is that bureaucrats fail to comply promptly with the Freedom of Information Act.

Murder of the messenger

In the United States, powerful corporate or government officials may from time to time succeed in killing a story. But they don't kill the reporter who wrote it.

In most of the world, murdering the messenger is a logical response to particularly aggressive reporting. Consider a geographical sampling of 1996 killings from the CPJ report:

Nadezhda Chaikova, known for her aggressive coverage of Russian military atrocities in Chechnya for the Moscow weekly Obshchaya Gazeta. In March, she was blindfolded, forced to kneel and executed with a bullet to the back of the head. Her colleagues are not sure who was responsible: Russian troops, or Chechens acting on rumors spread by Russian agents that Chaikova was a spy.

Ferdinand Reyes, editor of the Philippines weekly Press Freedom and author of columns about official corruption and human rights abuses. He was shot in the head in February while at his desk.

Mohamed Mekati, a correspondent for the Algerian government newspaper El Moudjahid, shot near his home in January. He was one of 59 Algerian journalists killed since 1993, when Islamic militants began targeting reporters.

Veronica Guerin, a crime reporter for the Irish Sunday Independent who had boldly reported on the Dublin underworld. She was shot dead in June by two men on a motorcycle while stopped at a red light; a Dublin drug dealer was charged with her murder.

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