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Don't kill the messenger
By Dina Rashed

Reporters play, in modern times, the role of the messenger. News hits the wire service almost instantaneously; leaders and the public alike are getting information faster than ever - due, in part, to the role being played by international correspondents all over the world.

The annual report of the Committee To Protect Journalists (CPJ) was recently released. The 550 pages, titled ‘Attacks on the Press in 2000,’ tell the stories of journalists who have worked under intolerable human conditions - even losing their lives in some cases - to provide journalistic coverage and exposé of atrocities all over the world.

According to the report, about 600 cases of media repression took place in 131 countries last year. The report gives special coverage to the worst cases - China, Russia and Venezuela. The most disturbing figures in the report were the deaths of 24 reporters - 16 of whom were assassinated. Colombia is considered the nation with the highest number of reporters' dying. The three deaths that occurred in 2000 add to its world record, making 34 deaths in a decade.

China held the highest record of jailing journalists, with 22 out of a total of 81 imprisoned reporters worldwide at the end of 2000. Other countries opted for different measures to repress the press, such as expensive libel suits and punitive tax laws, seeking to avoid the high cost international profile of being intolerant to opposition reporters.

Regarding the Middle East, the report stated that despite governmental censorship and other tough media laws, journalists in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Turkey and Yemen can operate with a higher degree of freedom than their counterparts in Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia where the governments control all printed and broadcasted materials and block any chance for independent media voices.

The report paid tribute to the Al-Jazeera broadcasting service and its coverage. ‘Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite channel was again the dominant regional news source and a model for others. Founded four years ago on a start-up grant from the Qatari government, Al-Jazeera has revolutionized news coverage in the Arab world, presenting uncensored reporting and open debate on regional issues and events,’ stated the report.

Al-Jazeera has been gaining solid ground in the Middle East and internationally, within Arabic speaking communities, for its extended coverage of events of the Muslim and Arab world in addition to its in-depth reports on international affairs. It has helped to boost the sale of satellite dishes among Middle Eastern viewers in Europe and North America.

Press and the Intifadah
However, in the Middle East section, the report includes not more than a paragraph testifying to the harassment of reporters on duty. ‘Displaying persistence and great courage, Palestinian cameramen and photojournalists continued to capture poignant images of violence and unrest in the occupied territories. In doing so, they faced bullets and beatings from Israeli soldiers and settlers, along with attacks from Palestinian demonstrators. At press time, CPJ had documented more than two-dozen cases of journalists injured or harassed while covering political violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifadah in late September. The vast majority of cases involved journalists shot or beaten by Israeli forces,’ mentioned the report.

Prior documentation had shown that the Palestinian and Arab reporters, though working with international press agencies and for foreign papers, were the target of shootings and harassment by Israeli officers.

The 2000 annual report stops short of mentioning restrictions imposed on reporters in Europe and North America on certain topics of coverage. In some occasions, limitations faced by western reporters came from within the establishments they worked for. The limited coverage by such media of the Palestinian Intifadah provides an excellent example in that sense.

Several U.S. and British reporters have spoken about the restrictions on their coverage of that hot spot in the world. The worst attacks were on journalistic reports that placed a share of the blame for current affairs on the Israeli government and were regarded as attacking the Jewish faith or of being anti-Semitic. Oddly enough, the Israeli Daily Ha'aretz deserves special recognition for providing far more coverage to English readers of the events in the occupied territories than its counterparts in the U.S., Canada, and Britain.

Last December, Britain's veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent that he had been vilified for telling the truth about the Palestinians.

An even worse impediment on freedom of the press in the free world was later revealed by Lord Gilmour, a former editor and proprietor of The Spectator and a former foreign office minister in Margaret Thatcher's government.

‘Conrad Black, however, who owns The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator in Britain, and hundreds of papers in Canada, the United States, Israel and other places, has taken to vilifying his staff for daring to criticize Israel's lethal and wholly disproportionate violence in Palestine,’ Lord Gilmour wrote in an article that appeared in the Independent on March 20, 2001, and recounted the Canadian Publisher's actions, most of which could be easily sensed since the beginning of Intifadah II last September.

According to Gilmour, the publisher is vilifying his staff in an attempt to reshape world events. ‘Black also claimed that 'most of the relevant sections of the BBC, Independent, Guardian, Evening Standard and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are rabidly anti-Israel', ‘ he wrote.

In the U.S., Arab American reporters face prejudice and discrimination as well. In one case involving a Chicago station, CLTV, which is owned by the Chicago Tribune newspaper, one of the country's largest publishing companies, news anchor Mike Monseur was fired from his position, following several demotions, once he was known to be of Arab descent and not French as his name may have implied.

In the Committee report's European regional section, the above British experience was not mentioned in the general analysis, nor was it discussed in a country profile with other European countries. The American section also did not relate any similar experiences.

It could be argued that such breaches of journalistic rights do not amount to massive attacks like assassination or physical assault on reporters as occur in some documented cases where governments actually adopt such measures as open policies. But in the free world, where the word is the sword and the public's perceptions to a large degree dictate governments, restrictions on reporters that lead to misreporting and/or incomplete or impartial reporting can have serious implications.

For more than 20 years, the CPJ has been working to defend journalists and freedom of the press all over the world. However, its decision to omit the discrepancies in the developed industrialized democracies from its report, as stated in the country profile of the U.S., finds no justification, particularly when foreign affairs are involved (IOL).

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