Ink and blood

November 30, 2003

IT'S WHERE journalists are most needed that they're most abused. Governments don't torture, murder or jail journalists in quiet countries where little is happening, or in noisy countries where there are a thousand and one competing voices. Journalists are most on the line in places where the truth is precious, where it is a matter of life and death.

Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists presented its International Press Freedom Awards, at an only slightly incongruous black-tie dinner in New York. "As you might guess, I've never had a chance to wear a tuxedo in Grozny," said Musa Muradov, the editor of a weekly Chechen newspaper, and one of the four recipients. Actually, these days Mr. Muradov doesn't even have the chance to be an editor in Grozny, Chechnya's grotesquely devastated capital. Two of his reporters have been killed and his offices there were destroyed by a bomb; threats to his life drove him to Moscow, where he runs Groznensky Rabochy at a safe distance.

His reporters at times must travel surreptitiously through Chechnya. His newspaper is published in southern Russia and distributed by hand in the rebellious republic; there is no mail. Circulation is 5,000. That's a triumph; that's thousands of ordinary Chechens who get at least a glimpse of what is happening to them from a source that, unusually, kowtows to neither the guerrillas nor the Russian military authorities.

Afghanistan is supposed to be a country on the mend. Before the Taliban took power and forced him into exile, Abdul Samay Hamed, a writer and publisher, had been beaten unconscious on the orders of a warlord in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. Today Mr. Hamed is at work again in Afghanistan; so is the warlord who had him beaten up, as a Cabinet minister in the new American-backed government. "The situation for working journalists in Afghanistan today can be -- confusing," Mr. Hamed said. "There are former Taliban who now call themselves democratic reformers." Much of the country is still run by warlords. Last spring he was attacked by two men with knives.

Everyone is waiting to see whether freedom is going to stick around in Afghanistan, and that means the press is no better than it dares to be. Says Mr. Hamed: "The only guarantee of freedom of expression is the courage of independent journalists."

Aboubakr Jamai and others have been creating a free press in Morocco where one had not existed. The government is fighting back, with pressure on advertisers and jail time for offending writers, including Mr. Jamai, who publishes two weekly newspapers. "It is no coincidence that this regression happened at about the same time as the U.S. war on terrorism," he said. The government's tough new policies, justified by the expanded fight against terrorism, he added, "are not draining the swamp; they are expanding it."

The awards dinner did not hear from Manuel Vazquez Portal, because he is serving an 18-year prison term in Cuba. He had helped create an independent news agency, Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, and contributed to CubaNet, a Miami-based Web site. He is smuggling his journals out of prison; after being sentenced to 18 years for practicing honest journalism, he wrote this year, what can the authorities do to him now that would be any worse?

It takes people of uncommon mettle to seek the truth in places where they're not wanted. Those places, as it turns out, are lucky to have them.

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