Freedom of the press is under assault around the world. The messenger is being attacked, maimed and even killed.
The numbers tell the story:
* At least 500 reporters have been killed in the line of duty since 1986, 27 in the last year alone. Of those, 474 were murdered, according to figures compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
* About 180 reporters languish in prisons in 22 countries. Two of the biggest violators are Turkey and Kuwait, both U.S. allies.
* Nearly 1,300 assaults on reporters have been recorded in Latin America since 1988.
* An estimated 1,800 attacks on the press in 160 countries were recorded last year.
* And censorship and laws repressing information are enforced in 120 countries.
World Press Freedom Day, this coming Saturday, is to commemorate the role a free press plays in maintaining a democracy and to highlight the dangers faced by reporters in gathering news.
"In the 1990s, the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists have been Algeria, Bosnia, Croatia and Tajikistan," writes William A. Orme Jr., executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in his introduction last month to CPJ's "Attacks on the Press in 1996."
Begun in 1981, the CPJ investigates more than 2,000 cases affecting the news media each year and lobbies on behalf of reporters without regard to political ideology.
Since May of 1993, at least 59 journalists have been assassinated in Algeria alone. Seven were killed in 1996. According to the CPJ report, both sides in the brutal conflict between fundamentalist Islamists and the army "continue to victimize the press."
While CPJ records show killings of journalists dropped from 51 in 1995 to 26 in 1996 (the 27th died in an accident), Mr. Orme identifies a disturbing trend.
There is "increasing willingness of criminal gangs from East Asia to South America and even Western Europe to dispatch hit men to silence troublesome reporters," he wrote.
The most prominent killing of a reporter last year was the assassination of Irish journalist Veronica Guerin. An investigative reporter, she exposed the link between Ireland's criminal bosses, tax fraud and drug runners.
On June 26, Mrs. Guerin, 36, was shot five times in the face and chest by an assassin who pulled up alongside her car on a motorcycle.
"It was . . . the most brutal and final form of censorship," wrote Mr. Orme.
But all the blame does not lie with the killer, according to CPJ. It takes Ireland to task for its "Byzantine libel laws," which, according to Irish reporters, actually put Mrs. Guerin in harm's way by forcing her to confront the targets of her stories.
She was killed just a few days before she was scheduled to speak at a Freedom Forum seminar on the dangers faced by reporters. Mrs. Guerin's husband, Graham Turley, will be speaking Friday at the Freedom Forum's Newseum in Rosslyn, which has a memorial to journalists killed in action.
The CPJ says Turkey is particularly hard on press freedom. At the end of 1996, there were 78 journalists in Turkish jails, usually sent there for critical reporting on the 11-year conflict between the government and Kurdish rebels.
It may be bad for reporters there, but not everyone thinks it is as bad as some of the press organizations report.
"I think the numbers are inflated," said an expert on press freedom who asked not to be identified for fear of being cast as an "ogre. …