Defending those who speak out


Press: The Committee to Protect Journalists calls the world's attention to violence, intimidation and censorship against reporters.

March 26, 2002|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Press criticism can take many forms. In the case of the English-language Pakistani newspaper Frontier Post one day last year, first it was the police, who charged seven staff members with the crime of blasphemy, punishable by either execution or life imprisonment. The next day it was a mob of Muslim extremists, who torched the paper's printing press in Peshawar.

Javed Nazir, a Post editor, was 300 miles away in Lahore. He was not aware that the newspaper, because of a slip by a night editor recovering from heroin addiction, had printed a letter to the editor insulting the prophet Mohammed.

He had no idea there was trouble until he picked up another newspaper - and read that police were on their way to arrest him.

He rushed to consult a lawyer, who told him he'd be lucky to survive fundamentalist violence long enough to stand trial. He hurried to the U.S. consulate to consult a friend, who told him his very presence was endangering the Pakistani employees.

Panicked, he fled the country, flew to New York - and went directly to the offices of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"They were somewhat aghast, I think," Nazir says, laughing. "They were not expecting me."

His wife had sent CPJ a frantic e-mail describing Nazir's plight, and the advocacy group had already fired off a protest to Pakistani authorities. That is the kind of help it ordinarily offers journalists under fire.

But within a few months, during which Nazir hid out in New York and in Pakistan, CPJ had helped arrange a temporary refuge: a yearlong Knight Foundation journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan.

"I can't even express my gratitude," Nazir says from Ann Arbor, where he is working on a book about Pakistan's 2.5 million Christians. "When you're running for your life, CPJ offers a ray of hope."

The deaths of eight foreign reporters covering the war in Afghanistan - and the murder on videotape of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in January - have renewed Americans' awareness of the hazards correspondents face overseas. But CPJ's annual report, "Attacks on the Press in 2001," published today, offers 600 pages of evidence of the violence, intimidation and censorship that journalists in many countries consider routine.

For 21 years, CPJ has been haranguing, embarrassing and annoying opponents of press freedom around the world. But there is no sign that the governments, extremists and thugs who don't like aggressive reporting are fewer.

The CPJ report counts 37 journalists killed and an additional 118 imprisoned in pursuit of their work, significantly higher than the year before, though below the peaks of the mid-1990s.

With a staff of 26 financed with donations from foundations, media organizations and individuals, the committee turns out an unending stream of protests and alerts, as well as traveling on fact-finding and negotiating missions.

Just this month, CPJ communiquM-is have targeted 16 countries from Croatia to Indonesia. Executive Director Ann Cooper has faxed "Your Excellency" or "Your Majesty" letters to, among others, the president of Russia, the prime minister of Nepal and the king of Jordan protesting moves against local media.

Do ripostes from an idealistic American nonprofit organization really influence foreign leaders?

"Nobody has ever written back to me and said, `Oh my gosh, you're absolutely right, we'll repeal that anti-press law or free that journalist right away,'" says Cooper, a one-time Sun reporter who was National Public Radio bureau chief in Moscow and Johannesburg for nine years.

But she says there is unquestionably an impact. The real audience for CPJ's messages is world opinion. By shining a light on abuses that might otherwise go unnoticed, CPJ raises the political cost of a regime's moves against the media.

This year's report, for example, notes that the jump in the number of jailed journalists is largely attributable to two countries not often in the international glare: Nepal and Eritrea.

Even in Zimbabwe, where the regime of the aging Robert G. Mugabe is using repressive laws and violent threats to intimidate journalists, Cooper thinks CPJ's agitating is being felt.

"Journalists are getting arrested, but most are quickly released," she says. "I think the journalists there would say things would be even worse if not for the international pressure."

In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin appears to have found a way to control the media while avoiding the outcry that would result from direct censorship. Media organizations that criticize the government, particularly its conduct of the war in Chechnya, have found themselves muzzled by new owners or crippled by libel judgments - but Putin's fingerprints are not always obvious.

"I think they've done a masterful job of putting limits on the independent media in the guise of financial disputes," Cooper says.

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