Thursday, 15 January 2009 19:00 Reporters Without Borders Editorial Dept - Free Press

ImageBetter figures despite a hostile climate and more Internet repression.

Reporters Without Borders only counted cases in which a link between the violation and the victim's work as a journalist was clearly established or very likely. The figures cover the violations the organisation learned about. They do not cover violations which the victims chose not to report (usually for security reasons). In other words, the same method was used to compile the figures as in previous years, making comparisons possible.

In 2008:

60 journalists were killed
1 media assistant was killed
673 journalists were arrested
929 were physically attacked or threatened
353 media outlets were censored
29 journalists were kidnapped


1 blogger was killed
59 bloggers were arrested
45 were physically attacked
1,740 websites were blocked, shut down or suspended


For comparison, in 2007:

86 journalists were killed
20 media assistants were killed
887 journalists were arrested
1,511 were physically attacked or threatened
528 media outlets were censored
67 journalists were kidnapped


The Asia-Pacific and Maghreb-Middle East regions are still the deadliest for the press. After Iraq (with 15 journalists killed), the two countries with the highest death tolls are Pakistan (7 killed) and the Philippines (6 killed). The bloodshed continues in Mexico, where four journalists were murdered in connection with their work. The fall in the death toll in Africa (from 12 in 2007 to 3 in 2008) is due above all to the fact that many journalists stopped working, often going into exile, and to the gradual disappearance of news media in war zones such as Somalia.

The number of arrests (for periods of more than 48 hours) is particularly high in Africa, where it is almost routine for journalists to end up in police cells when they upset senior officials or cover subjects that are off-limits. In Iraq (31 arrests), the US military's handling of the security situation often results in Iraqi journalists, including those working for foreign news media, being imprisoned. In China (38 arrests), many cases of detention were attributable to the Olympics. In Burma (17 arrests), outspoken journalists and bloggers were jailed in a crackdown by the military government.

Reporters Without Borders comment:

"The figures may be lower than last year's but this should not mask the fact that intimidation and censorship have become more widespread, including in the west, and the most authoritarian governments have been taking an even tougher line. The quantitative improvement in certain indicators is often due to journalists becoming disheartened and turning to a less dangerous trade or going into exile. We cannot say that 60 deaths, hundreds of arrests and systematic censorship offer grounds for optimism."

Repression shifts to the Internet

The fall in the number of journalists from the traditional media killed or arrested in 2008 does not mean the press freedom situation has improved. As the print and broadcast media evolve and the blogosphere becomes a worldwide phenomenon, predatory activity is increasingly focusing on the Internet.

In this respect, the figures speak for themselves. In 2008, someone was for the first time killed while acting as a "citizen journalist." It was Chinese businessman Wei Wenhua, who was beaten to death by "chengguan" (municipal police officers) while filming a clash with demonstrators in Tianmen (in Hubei province) on 7 January. Cases of online censorship were recorded in 37 countries, above all China (93 websites censored), Syria (162 websites censored) and Iran (38 websites censored).

There are democracies that do not lag far behind in terms of online surveillance and repression. Taboos established by the monarchy in Thailand and by the military in Turkey are so tenacious that incautious Internet users are increasingly being monitored and punished by the police. Video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Dailymotion are favourite targets of government censors. It is becoming more and more common for sites to be blocked or filtered because of content that officials have deemed "offensive."

A visceral reaction from some governments towards participatory websites, especially social networking sites, is beginning to give rise to cases of "mass censorship." The censorship of sites such as Twitter (in Syria) or Facebook (blocked in Syria and Tunisia, and filtered in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) leads to massive amounts of content being blocked - an effect that is considerably compounded when combined with other standard methods of control.

Governments are increasingly responding with imprisonment to criticism by bloggers. In China, 10 cyber-dissidents were arrested, 31 were physically attacked or threatened, and at least three were tried and convicted. In Iran, Reporters Without Borders registered 18 arrests, 31 physical attacks and 10 convictions. Online free expression is also curtailed in Syria (8 arrests and 3 convictions), Egypt (6 arrests) and Morocco (2 arrests and 2 convictions).

Internet freedom has been crushed with particular severity in Burma, where the military government has arrested and tried blogger and comedian Zarganar and the young cyber-dissident Nay Phone Latt in a disgraceful manner and sentenced them to incredibly severe jail terms (59 years for the former, 20 years for the latter). These two men join Burma's many other political prisoners, who include 16 journalists.

Reporters Without Borders comment:

"The growth in the Internet's influence and potential is being accompanied by greater vigilance on the part of some governments with already marked security concerns. Every year, repressive governments acquire new tools that allow them to monitor the Internet and track online data. The Internet is gradually becoming a battleground for citizens with criticisms to express and journalists who are censored in the traditional media. As such, it poses a threat to those in power who are used to governing as they wish with impunity."

Hostile climate, better figures

The upsurge in online repression comes at a time when traditional media, even in the leading western democracies, are coming under renewed pressure. Anti-terrorism and "post-9/11" laws put investigative journalists in very delicate positions. Foreign correspondents face growing hostility if they are from countries that are part of, or associated with, the US-led "anti-terrorist" coalition.

Still, even if the overall situation is bad, the figures are not as alarming as in previous years. Repression has shifted and diversified. Some authoritarian governments have been replaced. But even with 24 per cent fewer arrests, there are still too many police raids on news media and reporters' homes, including in France. And there are leading journalists and free expression activists such as Hu Jia, the "Olympic" prisoner of a Chinese government as intolerant as ever, who are beginning 2009 in jail.

There are no grounds for optimism. The murders of journalists continue although the number has fallen slightly (by 22 per cent, from 86 in 2007 to 60 in 2008) and the deaths are now concentrated in "hot zones" - Iraq, Pakistan's Tribal Areas, Philippines and Mexico - where civilians of all kinds fall victim to wars, political and criminal violence or terrorism. Abduction, an effective source of income and political affirmation, is still very frequent
in Afghanistan (7 journalists and media assistants kidnapped), Somalia (5 kidnappings), Mexico (5 kidnappings) and Iraq (4 kidnappings).

Finally, there is a slight decline in the use of censorship (with a third fewer cases in 2008 than in 2007) but it continues to be a routine tool in many countries that are equally distributed in all the continents - Sudan (4 media outlets censored), Guinea (5), Somalia (5), Iran (27), Egypt (10), Syria (11), Russia (15), Belarus (18), Turkey (13), Burma (85), China (132), Pakistan (19), Malaysia (25), Bolivia (20), Brazil (14), Mexico (10) and Venezuela (7).

Reporters Without Borders comment:

"One should not conclude from a decline in the figures that the situation has necessarily improved. The sad spectacle of a journalist in handcuffs is an almost daily occurrence in all the continents. When governments are challenged, their most frequent response is imprisonment. And the dozens of murders, in which the involvement of the security forces is often almost certain, rarely lead to trials, whether in Sri Lanka or Burkina Faso."

For more about Reporters Without Borders, please click here.

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