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MEDIA: Climate of Fear Pervades Many Newsrooms

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 10 2009 (IPS) - In Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, journalists are becoming increasingly vulnerable to physical violence as a result of their work, says a U.S.-based media watchdog in a new report released Tuesday.

"Today, the greatest threats to freedom of the press are more insidious than a generation ago because they are intended to induce a climate of fear and intimidation," said Carl Bernstein, a well-known investigative reporter, at the launch of the report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Bernstein told reporters that violence against journalists had "become more and more routine, because it is the one effective way of stopping the press under the most horrible of circumstances."

Last year, at least 41 journalists were killed and more than 100 lived behind bars, according to the 341-page CPJ report, "Attacks on the Press in 2008".

"A free and vigorous press had been at the vanguard of winning the fight for human rights over the past 30 to 40 years by doing their job of getting the best obtainable version of the truth," Bernstein told reporters.

"Now, the most depraved actors and acts had come together in a kind of extremism in the pursuit of shutting down the truth," he told reporters at a news conference at U.N. headquarters.

Paul Steiger, the chair of CPJ's board of directors, agreed with Bernstein. However, he noted that "some progress" had been made, as the number of journalists killed had fallen significantly – primarily because of fewer killings in Iraq, by far the most dangerous country to be a reporter.

Over the last two years, 70 percent of the killings had been deliberate murders, targeting the journalist, according to the CPJ report.

In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Steiger asked for Washington's support for the right of journalists to do their work without being shot at, beaten or imprisoned.

"Over the last years, support for that right at the highest levels has slipped," he said. "It is time to reaffirm that principle and to investigate the deaths of journalists who have been killed by U.S. troops and to end long-term incarceration of journalists in Iraq."

CPJ's executive director Joel Simon sees the impact of the "war on terrorism" on press freedom as "devastating". He said he was disturbed by the fact that the U.S. military in Iraq has killed as many as 16 journalists since 2003.

Simon also questioned the behaviour of the Chinese government, saying that Beijing had been unnerved by international pressure and had cracked down on journalists.

"Technology has changed the face of journalism, and governments now are more interested in journalists using the Internet," he said. "In the Middle East, satellite news is being suppressed."

In Europe, the Russian Federation and Georgia had both taken control of the airwaves in order to drum up support for military action, he added, noting that text messaging had become an important tool for African journalists, but the "bad guys" used the same technology to threaten them.

In response to a question about the role of U.S. journalists, Steiger said CPJ had been founded by U.S. foreign correspondents in 1981 and had since carried the torch for freedom of the press.

"There could be some justified criticism of the United States press in the run-up to the Iraq war," he said, "but since then, there had been massive coverage of both sides of the debates, with lots of aggressiveness."

Bernstein added that the coverage of many of the controversial policies of the George W. Bush administration had been "fabulous". Although that administration had been very secretive, nearly everything learned about it had not come from congressional investigation, but from the press.

It was a "terrible thing" to restrict journalists' activities in war zones, unless they were embedded in the military, Steiger said in response to another question.

"Imposing blanket restrictions deprives the public of their right to know," he told reporters. "Israel's restriction on journalists in Gaza out of concern for [their] safety has been an excuse, as journalists are willing to take the risk."

Simon said China, Vietnam, Burma and Thailand and Cuba were focal points of an Internet crackdown. In his view, the independent media in Iran had "disappeared". "The country is highly repressive for journalists," he said.

In response to a question about freedom of the press in Russia, Simon said it was "very difficult and violent", explaining that recently, a fourth reporter for the Novaya Gazeta had been killed. "That has sent a message to the newspaper," he said.

In Bernstein's view, the discussion has "come full circle". He said the former Soviet Union had official censorship through state-owned media. "That censorship has stopped working because of new forms of information, beginning with video tapes."

According to him, technology has changed the equation "gradually so that new and more draconian means had to be found by repressive governments, by movements that are threatened by the free flow of information, and the old methodologies don't work anymore".

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