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.

Sun Journal

March 27, 1998|By Hal Piper | Hal Piper,SUN STAFF

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.

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