Press freedom league: the worst offenders

Tomorrow is International Press Freedom Day, a tribute to silenced writers and publications worldwide

There is a case for saying that genuine press freedom is a myth throughout the world, writes Rhys Williams. It is just that is in some countries, it is more of a myth than others. Take the UK. A British journalist would not expect to be gunned down for exposing some grubby fact the Government would have preferred left in the closet. But the constraints on freedom are real, although rather more insidious. The lack of a Freedom of Information Act means the burden lies with the public to explain why a fact should be revealed. The Contempt of Court Act with its attendant threat of imprisonment has been used in attempts to wheedle out the names of sources from journalists. However, the most serious threats in liberal democracies come from within the press itself. The press must be free from political interference, yes, but it must also boast genuine plurality and diversity of ownership.

In Britain, one company, News International, controls five national newspapers, accounting for more than a third of circulation. The same organisation controls seven satellite channels and could be poised to gain a toehold in terrestrial television with a bid for the new Channel 5 licence. Freedom of expression, it could be argued, also needs protection from the logic of the market.

Top of the table in terms of number of journalists killed: 19 in 1994, at least another eight so far this year. Most are victims of militant Islamic groups fighting to overthrow the army-backed government, which cancelled elections in 1992 when an Islamic Salvation Front victory became clear.

The Armed Islamic Group has said it will kill any journalist sympathetic to the government. Last December, it gunned down a satirical columnist, Said Mekbel. In his last column he wrote: "I really feel as if I've vanished, as if I'm dead already."

Imprisons more journalists than any other country: more than 70 are currently in detention. Most work for the pro-Kurdish press. Anything that can be construed as arguing for a separate Kurdish state can earn the writer a four-year prison sentence.

The Kurdish paper Ozgur Gundem was closed by the government in April last year. When staff reopened it under a new name, many of them were arrested on suspicion of belonging to the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party. A bomb destroyed the paper's offices and in February the paper was banned.

Since the civil war began in December 1992, 19 journalists have been murdered by paramilitaries. The government of President Rakhmonov has closed down all publications deemed sympathetic to the opposition.

The pro-Islamic paper Navidi Vaksh lost four journalists in 1993. They were abducted from the office and their bodies were discovered later, more than 100 miles away. No one has been charged. Navidi Vaksh has since ceased publication. There are now no independent publications in the state.

There are at least 21 journalists in prison, most from unofficial publications, and self-censorship is endemic. Countless unofficial papers have been closed over the years. Closures among the official press are common too - the liberal magazine Jingpin was closed last May, and the daily Fazhi Ribao was threatened with closure after it called for legislation to protect the media from censorship.

Last year, veteran freelancer Gao Yu was sentenced to six years after writing an article about structural reform in China for a Hong Kong magazine.

A long tradition of press freedom ended abruptly last summer when Nigeria's military strong man, General Abacha, closed 15 of the leading opposition papers. They had called for the re-instatement of Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of annulled presidential elections of 12 June 1993.

Journalists from surviving opposition papers suffer continual official harassment. The deputy editor of the News was arrested, released, re- arrested and beaten by police last summer, following a front-page story entitled, "Go back to June 12".

In 1992, at the height of the war against the Shining Path guerillas, 25 journalists were imprisoned for supporting or "apologising for" terrorism. Ten are still in prison, serving sentences of up to 20 years.

The government often uses anti-terrorist legislation against journalists investigating municipal corruption or the cocaine trade. Last December, Clemente Quincho Panez, was arrested while investigating corruption in Peru's largest mining company. He remains in prison.

Compiled by Index on Censorship

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