The dead behind the deadlines


Casualties: Around the world last year, a book says, 34 journalists were killed.

March 23, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

On the back cover of most books you'll find words of praise snipped from admiring reviews, a bit of literary chest-thumping designed to boost sales. But one glance at the back of "Attacks on the Press in 1999," released this week by the Committee to Protect Journalists, makes it immediately clear that this is not your average book.

"I want to register my profound gratitude to [the committee] for saving my life," the first blurb begins. "Your swift move to rescue me from death at the hands of ferocious rebels still defies my imagination."

That testimonial comes from Aroun Rashid Deen, a broadcast journalist in Sierra Leone, which earned this year's dubious distinction as the world's deadliest media venue. Ten journalists lost their lives covering Sierra Leone's civil war, eight of them after rebel forces virtually declared war on reporters during a brief but bloody occupation of the capital city, Freetown.

Some not so lucky

Had Deen not hidden and then escaped Freetown with the help of an emergency grant, he might have ended up like newspaper reporter James Ogogo, of whom the book says:

"The rebels tied Ogogo to the back of a truck and dragged him in the direction of the State House. Before reaching the State House, the rebels stopped the truck, untied Ogogo and told him to start walking. They then opened fire and killed him."

Thirty-four journalists were killed worldwide in the line of duty last year, 87 were imprisoned because of their work -- usually after writing or broadcasting something unflattering about the reigning power -- and nearly 400 more were attacked.

458 dead in a decade

That raised the international death toll of journalists to 458 for the 1990s. The decade's three most lethal locations were the former republics of the Soviet Union (78 killed), Algeria (59), and the former Yugoslavia (55).

The year's killings and attacks are exhaustively detailed in 435 pages -- covering 122 countries plus the Palestinian National Authority. The point of such grim calculations, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, "is to shame governments into changing their behavior by giving wide exposure to their abuses of freedom."

Mugabe's view

Shame or embarrassment over coverage is sometimes behind the killings and incarcerations. It is an attitude that may have been best articulated by Zimbabwe's former President Robert Mugabe, who said he could not condemn soldiers for torturing journalists if the journalists had "provoked" it.

In the report's impassioned preface, New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch offers another reason to document assaults on the press: to stimulate more and better coverage of all the places that have become so deadly and unwelcoming.

Gourevitch, who covered the brutal ethnic war in Rwanda, chides the American media for indirectly encouraging mistreatment of the press abroad with coverage that sometimes seems guided by the priorities of a real estate salesman: location, location, location.

A local example: Why pay much attention to the massacre of 35 Sikhs in a Kashmiri village (one paragraph on page 12 of Tuesday's Sun) when Joseph C. Palczynski was still holed up with three hostages in Dundalk (five stories that day)?

"How many of our readers, viewers and listeners really know what happened in Sierra Leone, where so many of our colleagues met their deaths?" Gourevitch writes.

"How many of us know? In failing to cover such a story, we do the enemies of free speech a great favor."

Which might explain why hardly anyone in America knows how Paul Mansaray, deputy editor of the Standard Times, was killed in Sierra Leone.

Family slain

"He, his wife, their two young children and a nephew were murdered by Revolutionary United Front rebels at their home in Calabar Town, east of Freetown," the report says. "The RUF rebels were overheard shouting at Mansaray and threatening him about his journalistic work. They set the house ablaze, firing their weapons into it as it burned to the ground with Mansaray and his family inside."

The report's totals are not without controversy. Yugoslavia would have ended the year as the world's deadliest country if the committee's death toll hadn't pointedly excluded the 16 people killed when NATO warplanes bombed the studio of state-run Radio and Television Serbia.

The committee apparently decided to abide by NATO's classification of those victims as "propagandists" who were fueling the Yugoslav government's war machine, although the report notes that the committee "condemned the strike as an action that jeopardized the safety of all journalists covering the war and potentially weakened the protections that journalists enjoy as civilians under international humanitarian law."

Embassy fatalities

The report did include among the country's annual death toll of six the three Chinese journalists killed by the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade.

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