Press Conference on 'Attacks on the Press' Report

10 February 2009

Press Conference on 'Attacks on the Press' Report

10 February 2009
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Much of the systemic violence against journalism and journalists nowadays was intended to impose self-censorship, journalist Carl Bernstein told correspondents today at a Headquarters Press Conference.

Mr. Bernstein said that was the trend he read in the new edition of Attacks on the Press, a report compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), for which he had written a preface.  The report was launched at the press conference, which was sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).  CPJ’s Executive Director, Joel Simon, and Chairman of the Board, Paul Steiger, also participated.

“The most depraved acts against journalists have become more and more routine, because it is the one effective way of stopping the press under the most horrible of circumstances -- including kidnappings of reporters’ families, targeting journalists for execution,” Mr. Bernstein said.  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.  Now, the most depraved actors and acts had come together in a “kind of extremism in the pursuit of shutting down the truth”.

One also had to look at incarceration as a means of intimidation, Mr. Bernstein continued.  “A journalist in Burma has been condemned to 59 years in jail for threatening the public atmosphere by reporting on the cyclone”.  It was, however, no longer States where the threats emanated from -- although countries such as “ North Korea, Cuba and Burma continue such practices because despots know it works”.  The number and severity of people, institutions, despots, tyrannies and religious movements determined to suppress the truth was increasing.  Journalists, particularly in the West, had the primary responsibility to fight that trend.

Mr. Steiger said that some progress had been made, as the number of journalists killed had fallen significantly -- primarily because of a reduction in killings in Iraq.  Over the last two years, 70 per cent of the killings had been deliberate murders, targeting the journalist.

He announced that he had written a letter to United States President Barack Obama, encouraging the new Administration to reaffirm America’s traditional support for the rights 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 had slipped.  It was time to reaffirm that principle and to investigate the deaths of journalists who had been killed by United States troops and to end long-term incarceration of journalists in Iraq.

Mr. Simon said the impact of the war on terrorism on press freedom had been devastating.  The number of journalists killed or incarcerated had “skyrocketed”.  United States military in Iraq -- the “deadliest” place for journalists -- had killed 16 journalists; killings that had been inadequately investigated.  Eritrea and Cuba had launched a crackdown on journalists, and the United States had jailed an Al Jazeera reporter in Guantanamo.  The number of journalists killed in 2008 stood at 41, down from 67 killed in 2007.  The number of journalists in prison stood at 127 as of 1 December 2008.  Several journalists had been released from jail by Cuba.

He said that, during the Olympic Games, China had been unnerved by international pressure and had cracked down on journalists.  Technology had changed the face of journalism, and Governments now were more interested in journalists using the Internet.  56 of those were now in jail.  “ Viet Nam, Burma and even Thailand are following China’s censorship model to control the Internet”.  In the Middle East, satellite news was being suppressed.  In Europe, the Russian Federation and Georgia had both taken control of the air waves in order to drum up support for military action.  Text messaging had become an important tool for African journalists, but the “bad guys” used the same technology to threaten them.

Asked how United States journalists had stood up against the Bush Administration, and even now when covering Republican’s criticism of Obama’s stimulus plan, Mr. Steiger said that CPJ had been founded by United States foreign correspondents in 1981 and had since then 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, but since then, there had been massive coverage of both sides of the debates, with “lots of aggressiveness”.

Mr. Bernstein added that that the coverage of a lot of activities by the Bush Administration had been “fabulous”.  Although that Administration had been very secretive, 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 imbedded in the military, Mr. Steiner answered another question.  Imposing blanket restrictions deprived the public of their right to know.  Mr. Simon added that Israel’s restrictions on journalists in Gaza out of concern for their safety had been an excuse, as journalists were willing to take the risk.

Asked what definition of a journalist CPJ used and where the line was drawn between “journalists” and “bloggers”, Mr. Simon said CPJ used a “common sense” approach.  If something read like journalism, it was journalism.  Outlets such as poetry and theatre were valuable forms of expression, but did not constitute journalism.

In response to another question, Mr. Simon said he had expressed concern about the statement of Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in Somalia, comparing Somali journalists reporting an incident to those who incited the Rwandan genocide.  The “specter” of Rwanda was used periodically by repressive regimes to justify suppression of free speech.  It was an “intimidating pretext”.

Responding to a question whether the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had been right in calling for a news block-out of the kidnapping of one of their journalists in Afghanistan who had been kidnapped and later released, Mr. Simon said it was a thorny issue.  CBC had made a compelling case not to cover the story, out of fear for the journalist’s life.  It had not been an easy decision, but the risk of reporting had been clear.  Mr. Bernstein added that there was no blanket rule in such a case.  Common sense should be applied and one should consider whether reporting such an incident would serve a greater purpose.

Answering questions about repression of new technologies, Mr. Simon said that Asia, with countries such as China, Viet Nam, Myanmar and Thailand, were a focal point of Internet crackdown.  Cuban journalists did not have access to the Internet, but used the telephone for their reporting and were, therefore, also considered as online journalists.  As for Iran, he said the traditional independent media had disappeared.  The country was highly repressive for journalists.  What remained were “bloggers”.

Asked about the Russian Federation’s policies vis-à-vis the press, Mr. Simon said the environment in the Russian Federation for the press was very difficult and violent.  Recently, a fourth reporter for the Novaya Gazeta had been killed.  That had sent a message to the newspaper.

Drawing attention to the courage of journalists, Mr. Steiger said that, when the third journalist of the Novaya Gazeta had been killed, the editor had wanted to close the publication down because of the danger to his staff.  His staff had unanimously rejected that proposal, saying they wanted to go on doing their work because they believed in it.  “That is a level of courage that you don’t often see.”

Mr. Bernstein added that the discussion had come full circle.  The former Soviet empire had had official censorship through State-owned media.  That censorship had stopped working because of new forms of information, beginning with video tapes.  “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.”  As the old methodologies had failed, the “most awful of these practitioners have become more and more willing to engage in the most horrendous of acts against their fellow citizens who are journalists”.  Those who practiced the craft of journalism in a better environment had the obligation to think about their colleagues in those “outposts”.

* *** *

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