Press Conference on Annual Report of Committee to Protect Journalists

16 February 2010

Press Conference on Annual Report of Committee to Protect Journalists

16 February 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on Annual Report of Committee to Protect Journalists

With the number of journalists killed worldwide surging to 70 last year, Robert Mahoney, Deputy Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists called for stronger action by the United Nations, as he announced the release of his group’s annual report this morning.

“It’s a pretty grim picture,” Mr. Mahoney told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), citing statistics from the 2009 survey of press freedom worldwide, entitled “Attacks on the Press”.

“This past year was the worst in the 30-year history of [the Committee] for journalists’ deaths,” he said, pointing also to the increasing number of journalists imprisoned by authoritarian Governments, which reached 136 in December 2009 and had increased since then.

“I would like the Secretary-General to make a more assertive and firm stance in favour of freedom of expression,” he said, acknowledging the Secretary-General’s previous efforts, and the limitations on him.  He maintained, however, that he should keep the issue constantly in the forefront as a fundamental human right that must not be taken for granted.  He also appealed to fellow journalists to raise the level of advocacy.

Noting that repression in Iran and violence in the Philippines had greatly worsened this year’s picture, Mr. Mahoney welcomed to the podium Bob Dietz, the committee’s Asia Programme Coordinator, and Maziar Bahari, a Newsweek correspondent, who had been arrested last year in Teheran, jailed for four months and released, owing to pressure from the Committee and other press freedom groups.

Mr. Bahari said that there were at least 60 journalists now imprisoned in Iran, with some 100 having been arrested and vulnerable to re-arrest.  The press had been treated with suspicion since the Islamic resolution, when a law was put in place that allowed journalists to be prosecuted as spies.

Since last year’s election, however, repression had moved to a new phase, with arrests of writers and bloggers part of pre-planned scenarios that tried to connect them with foreign elements, who the Iranian Government was claiming was behind the opposition, he said.  Working for Persian-language media outside of Iran, in particular, had been turned into a capital offence.

He said that it had been hoped that new social media, like Facebook and Twitter, could get the word out in repressive situations, but Governments had been turning them against journalists, mining their lists of friends and hacking websites.  One of the first things his jailers did was get his passwords and find out who his friends were.  “This is a worrying trend,” he said.  The committee was now more closely monitoring Government attempts to filter and block Internet access and to disrupt other news media.

Asked about other countries, the panel confirmed that 19 journalists, including two prominent reporters on Chechnya, had been assassinated by paid gunmen in Russia since 2000, with virtually no prosecution.  In Mexico, gruesome killings of journalists had prevented coverage of a drug war raging just south of the United States border.  Mr. Mahoney said the committee was working actively on those situations.

They said that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was the world’s most heavily censored nation.  China had the largest censorship apparatus, but by far, the most Internet users, who were dealt with harshly if they went “outside the line”.

Mr. Dietz said that Afghanistan and Iraq were following similar patterns, with journalists connected to large media companies present at high-profile times, augmented and replaced by local journalists and freelancers who were much more vulnerable.  He affirmed that it was important for journalists to be in conflict zones and that they should be protected.

Sri Lanka, Mr. Dietz said, was a delicate situation, because many local journalists were wary of international advocacy.  There was still a lively, media connected to various political parties, but the situation was worrisome and the Committee was weighing what to do next.

In much of the Middle East and North Africa, the panel said, Governments ‑‑ including those of Tunisia, Syria and Saudi Arabia ‑‑ heavily filtered new media, but there was some opening in Morocco and Egypt.

Asked about the United States and the Republic of Korea, they said that, considering the Committee’s limited resources, it had to concentrate on instances were there was an imminent danger of incarceration or killing; sister organizations dealt with other press issues.

In regard to the prosecution of the killers of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal correspondent murdered in Pakistan, Mr. Dietz said that it had been hoped that his case would provide an example to show that it was possible for that Government to fight such crimes.  However, since his death, nine other journalists had been killed in situations that should have resulted in prosecution, and none had.

Asked for solutions for the press situation in Iran, Mr. Bahari advocated putting more and more pressure on the Government, which had worked in his case.  “There is no Bruce Willis that can come and rescue people,” he stressed.  He might have been treated differently because he worked for foreign media, but that was also why he had been arrested, he said.

In closing, Mr. Mahoney stressed that he wanted his call on the United Nations for a stronger stance on press freedom to be taken as an encouragement, and not a criticism.  He hoped to be able to present the next annual report with much better news to share, he said.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.