OPPRESSION Supporting Journalists Where the Press Is Far Less Than Free

Article excerpt

KHARKIV, Ukraine - Since January, I have been living in Ukraine, teaching and learning from journalists as part of a Knight International journalism Fellowship. I start most days with two staples: a steaming-hot mug of coffee to counter the hitter winter cold, and a careful perusal of stories from the country's newspapers and news Web sites.

At first, I was shocked by articles describing attacks on journalists: In January, somebody torched the car belonging to the editor ot an opposition newspaper in Kharkiv, where 1 live in eastern Ukraine. A few weeks later, in another big city called Dnepropetrovsk, thugs beat up a television reporter because he had aired a story critical of a local politician.

After a month, such incidents no longer surprised me.

For journalists here and in many countries, assaults are distressingly common - and stories are killed with bullets. In the United States, an angry newsmaker might chew you out, threaten a lawsuit or slam a door in your face; in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world, you can end up in the hospital - or the morgue.

At least 81 journalists were killed tor doing their jobs or expressing their opinions in 2006, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a Paris-based group that defends journalists and fights censorship. It was the deadliest year for journalists since 1994, the organization said. In addition, at least 32 media assistants, such as drivers and translators, were killed last year.

In a report issued in February, RSF presented other grim statistics for 2006: At least 871 journalists were arrested; 1,472 journalists were physically attacked or threatened; 56 journalists were kidnapped; and 912 media outlets were censored.

"Worst year on record'

The exact numbers are a matter of discussion among news organizations.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recorded a "confirmed total" of 55 journalists killed because of their work last year. The committee said it could not confirm a motive in the deaths of 30 other journalists. Two additional journalists disappeared while doing their jobs and may have been killed, the group said.

The International Federation of Journalists, based in Belgium, counted "at least 155 murders, assassinations and unexplained deaths of journalists and media workers" in 2006 and called it "the worst year on record."

Reporters are killed with impunity, said Aidan White, the federation's general secretary. "In all but a handful of cases, the killers of journalists get away unpunished. In many countries, there are no serious investigations because of police or judicial corruption or governmental negligence."

No matter whose numbers you use, the conclusion is clear: Journalism is a dangerous profession, and reporters increasingly face retaliation in many countries from authorities who want to control news and information.

Robert Ménard, secretary general of RSF, sees a pattern beyond the disturbing toll of journalists killed, assaulted or imprisoned:

"Even more deplorable was the lack of interest, and sometimes even the failure, by democratic countries in defending everywhere the values they are supposed to incarnate.... Almost everyone believes in human rights, but amid the silence and behavior on all sides, we wonder who these days has the necessary moral authority to make a principled stand in favor of these freedoms."

Ukrainian journalists I have talked to wonder the same thing. They say there's little support for hard-nosed investigative journalism. Many publishers don't have the stomach tor it. Reporters question whether their stories are worth the risk of physical harm or jail, whether they will gel published anyway, and whether anybody will care.

My most valuable role in Ukraine may be to assure reporters that people do care: that good journalism is vital to readers and to society; that a free press is critical to democracy; and that journalists here can count on at least moral support from their colleagues in the United States and other countries. …