A freedom under siege

November 29, 2005|By CLARENCE PAGE

NEW YORK -- After this year's International Press Freedom Awards dinner, an ex-reporter remarked to me that the honorees' inspiring stories made her "think about getting back into real journalism again," with her accent on "real."

"Me too," I responded spontaneously, feeling unusually humbled by the realities of many of our overseas colleagues. It has been a rough year for American journalists. But things could be worse; we could be trying to work in China, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan or rural Brazil.

Those are the countries where death, jail, beatings, exile or intimidation color the daily working conditions of this year's recipients of the Press Freedom Awards, given out by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, of which I am a board member.

This year, the tributes seemed to have a new edge. The hardship and sacrifices of journalists in societies that are less free remind us not only of how much we take for granted in the United States but also how often our own press freedoms seem to be under siege.

For refusing to reveal news sources, one American reporter, Judith Miller, was jailed while working as a reporter for The New York Times this year, and another, Rhode Island television reporter Jim Taricani, was put under house arrest with an ankle bracelet in 2004. Dozens of reporters have been similarly threatened with subpoenas or jail this year as Congress drags its heels on whether to pass a federal shield law that would protect journalists from having to divulge their confidential sources.

As our own government fights for increasing secrecy in the name of the war on terrorism, more tyrannical regimes increasingly borrow such homeland security rhetoric to cover up their own abuses.

And as our international trade grows, American companies increasingly ignore human rights abuses to win favors from tyrannical regimes.

One of this year's honorees, for example, was jailed in China, a perennial leader for jailing journalists, with the help of Yahoo, the American Internet giant. Shi Tao, 37, a Chinese journalist, is serving a 10-year sentence for "leaking state secrets abroad." Translation: He posted on the Internet a Propaganda Department memo that instructed Chinese journalists on the government-approved way to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. His arrest resulted from a troubling cooperation between China's repressive police and Yahoo, which has refused to discuss the affair, except for brief press statements about cooperating with host countries' laws.

Brazilian editor Lucio Flavio Pinto, 56, was too tangled up in harassing lawsuits to leave his Amazonian hometown to receive his award in person. Investigating corruption and deforestation has made him the enemy of powerful, well-connected people in big business, one who punched him in a restaurant - on camera! Missing even one of his almost daily court appearances could land him in jail, said his daughter, Juliana da Chuna Pinto, who accepted the award on her father's behalf.

One honoree could not return to her home country and another is about to do so with great courage.

Galima Bukharbaeva, 31, cannot return to Uzbekistan for fear of imprisonment or other reprisals stemming from her reporting on police torture, repression of Islamic activists and other state-sponsored abuses in the former Soviet republic. While reporting on a May 13 massacre of civilians in the city of Andijan, a bullet tore through her backpack, piercing her notebook and press pass, when troops opened fire on demonstrators.

Zimbabwean lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, 47, is the first non-journalist to be honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. She has been followed, arrested and beaten for her work on behalf of journalists, foreign and domestic, who have dared to operate independently of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's dictator-president.

Because almost all of the country's independent journalists and correspondents have been driven out, there is little press freedom left in Zimbabwe to protect. The result, as Ms. Mtetwa pointed out, is a growing freedom for Mr. Mugabe and his cronies to do whatever they want, unexposed by the light of journalists.

We take freedom of the press for granted in the United States.

Press freedoms here are facing new questions, sometimes with good reason. Journalists who abuse those freedoms need to be taken to task. But that doesn't make the freedoms any less valuable.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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