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27 Jun, 2012

2012 Shaping Up as Worst Year Ever for Journalists

By Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, Jun 25 2012 (IPS) – It’s the type of honour roll that journalists would prefer not to be on.

But as an emotional Allison Bethel-McKenzie read out the names of the 72 journalists who have made that grim list so far this year, even Trinidad and Tobago’s president, George Maxwell Richards, was moved to plead for “some form of internationally recognised immunity” to lessen the risks to journalists while doing their jobs.

“From Somalia to Syria, the Philippines to Mexico and Iraq to Pakistan, reporters are being brutally targeted for death in unparalleled numbers,” Bethel-McKenzie, executive director of the International Press Institute (IPI), told the Austria-based organisation’s 61st World Congress here.

President Richards, in his address to the opening ceremony Sunday, acknowledged that while the media plays a critical public role, “the risks for media personnel are ever increasing, as they are for diplomats, in a changing world environment which does not guarantee safety.

“Perhaps the time has come for some form of internationally recognised immunity to be agreed, such as that afforded agencies such as the Red Cross, so that the risks to journalists may be minimised, if not eradicated,” he said.

Bethel-McKenzie noted that last year was the second-worst on record, with 102 journalists killed, only surpassed by 2009, with 110 deaths.

“It is deeply disturbing that in a year still massively impacted by the once-unimaginable, the overthrow of brutal Arab regimes through people and media power, journalists are dying on the job in record numbers,” she said.

The IPI official said that the most lethal country in the world for journalists so far this year has been Syria, where a largely-peaceful Arab Spring uprising has morphed into a violent conflict.

“So far in 2012 a total of 20 journalists and citizen reporters, both foreign and local, have been killed in Syria. Two of the foreign journalists killed died in shelling that reportedly zoned in on their makeshift media bureau which was emitting traceable satellite signals. Local reporters have been savagely eliminated. Many have been brutally tortured.”

She said that the media killings in Syria have made the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) one of the two most dangerous regions in the world for reporters in 2012, with a total of 22 journalists killed.

Although the death rate appears to have receded in Libya, and no journalists have yet been killed in 2012 in Iraq – where dozens died in a single year following the 2003 invasion – in Bahrain, a cameraman was shot dead covering protests and in Lebanon, another cameraman suffered the same fate as he filmed on the Lebanese-Syrian border.

“Throughout the Middle East and North Africa journalists continue to be targeted for assault, arrest, harassment and intimidating criminal defamation suits, including in countries where things are supposed to be getting better such as Tunisia. In Egypt the army has continued to display the brutality that typified it under the Mubarak regime,” she said.

Bethel-McKenzie said that the situation also remains grim in Asia where 22 journalists have been killed so far this year, and it “shares with the Middle East and North Africa the dubious distinction as one of the two most lethal regions in the world for journalists in 2012″.

According to the IPI official, the third most deadly region in the world for journalists in 2012 is Latin America, where 14 journalists have been killed so far.

At the head of the pack is Mexico, which last year was the most dangerous country on earth for journalists. So far this year, six reporters have been slain in Mexico.

Bethel-McKenzie broke down as she related the incident leading to the death of a female journalist in Mexico whose work had focused on drug-related violence and alleged links between cartels and state and local politicians.

“One of her last articles covered the arrest of nine policemen suspected of colluding with traffickers,” she said, noting that journalists were also killed in Honduras and Ecuador.

IPI noted that “Ecuador appeared to be taking its cue from Venezuela where press freedom has gravely deteriorated over recent years amid moves by the government to silence critical independent media voices through lawsuits, new legislation, vilification and harassment.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, Somalia remains the most lethal country for journalists. Six have been killed there since the beginning of the year. Gunmen also killed journalists in Nigeria, which has seen a surge in violence linked to Boko Haram militants.

“Across the African continent like in other parts of the world, journalists faced not just the threat of death but that of criminal defamation, terrorism and sedition charges, assault, torture, unfair trials on trumped-up charges, unlawful imprisonment, harassment and various other forms of intimidation.”

But she said amid the gloom, there has been a bright spot with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pledging to work toward the repeal of criminal defamation laws in her country, becoming the second African head of state to do so after Niger’s President Mamado Issuefoo in November 2011.

This is the first occasion that the IPI World Congress is being held in the Caribbean and Bethel-McKenzie said that in Cuba, repression of the independent media continued despite the release last year of all the remaining journalists in prison.

She noted that the global financial crisis has also taken its toll on the profession, with reporters being laid off, bureaus closed, advertising revenue falling and news budgets shrinking.