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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

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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