Safeguarding Speech: A Shield for Journalists under Threat

By Julliard, Jean-Francois | Harvard International Review, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Safeguarding Speech: A Shield for Journalists under Threat


Julliard, Jean-Francois, Harvard International Review


Reporters Without Borders monitors abuse of journalists and freedom of the press around the world--a job increasing in difficulty. Since its creation in 1985, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has become one of the largest international NGOs dedicated to defending press freedom and advocating for the safety of journalists. Headquartered in Paris, with offices in the United States, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Spain, France, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and Switzerland, RWB has correspondents in more than 140 countries. The organization works to publicize instances of repression and violence against journalists and provide assistance to those who are targeted.

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The past decade has been a difficult one for journalists. The Chinese government continues to combine online censorship and surveillance with long prison terms for press offenses, while countries such as Burma, Vietnam, Syria, and Iran are following suit and trying to solidify state control over the Internet by restricting access to information.

In Mexico, over 60 journalists have been killed since 2000, making it the deadliest country for reporters in the Western Hemisphere. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq also proved to be two of the most dangerous conflicts to cover in recent history, as reporters were often being targeted by different factions and militia groups. As US combat troops began leaving Iraq in August 2010, RWB determined that over 230 journalists had been killed since the start of the conflict in 2003--more than the combined total amount of reporters killed during the Vietnam War, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and the Algerian civil war. Hundreds more have been kidnapped and arbitrarily detained by Iraqi as well as US officials.

In 2009, RWB noted significant increase in cases of journalists forced into exile, a statistic it incorporated for the first time into its annual report. Our researchers were able to identify that at least 157 reporters were forced to leave their home country. Iran and Somalia topped the list of countries where reporters had to flee followed by Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Guinea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Columbia, and Ethiopia. The continued increase in assistance requests from reporters who face these threats of violence or incarceration was our biggest concern in the last few years and continues to be so.

In 2007, RWB added a major new component to its operations with the creation of the Assistance Desk, a department in the RWB Paris headquarters devoted to providing a wide range of resources and support to embattled journalists. Unfortunately, the growing number of refugees means we can assist only a small proportion of those in need. With requests for aid pouring in, RWB has opened a second Assistance Desk in Berlin in 2010. This year shows all the possibilities of being another dangerous year for journalists, given scheduled elections in Afghanistan, Burma, Palestine, Rwanda, and Uganda; the referendum in Sudan; continued political instability in Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Kyrgyzstan; increase in drug violence in Mexico; the NATO military surge along the Afghan-Pakistan border; and growing clashes in Eastern Congo and Somalia.

Increased Internet access, growth in social networking, and other technological developments over the past few years have led to the unprecedented availability of information, much of it from regions that had previously been terra incognita. Despite the abundance of information and new ways of obtaining it, 2009 proved to be an extremely dangerous and difficult year for global journalism.

The outlook for 2010 is not better. In countries like Iran and Burma, video journalists, bloggers, and activists have given us precious insights into important human rights issues that are too often kept from the public, something they would not have been able to do a few years ago. Still, governments and armed groups in many countries fear the possibility of independent information reaching the outside world--or even their own citizens--and have increasingly sought to silence these voices through restrictive new laws, emergency measures, state-sponsored violence, arbitrary detention, and murder. …

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