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DECKER: Painting a target on the press

Libyan war highlights violent attacks on journalists globally

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The civil war in Libya is spiraling out of control as dictator Moammar Gadhafi lashes out in every direction in a desperate attempt to cling to power. Out of this chaos, however, the brutal truth about this regime is becoming better known around the world. This doesn't help Col. Gadhafi's cause, so his forces are cracking down to suppress information to the outside world. Many journalists are caught in the crossfire.

On March 19, reporter Mohammed al-Nabbous was gunned down by a government sniper as he filmed fighting in Benghazi for his Free Libya blog. Another videographer was killed two weeks ago, and numerous foreign journalists have been detained for covering the uprising, including a reporter from the New York Times. A whole team from the Islamic television network Al Jazeera was arrested last weekend. The embattled leader of Libya must really be feeling the heat if he feels the need to censor Al Jazeera, which isn't exactly known for impartiality when covering the Muslim world.

"Gadhafi's abuse of journalists exposes who this evil man really is," Libyan Prince Mohamed Hilal El Senussi - who spent 41 years in exile hiding from Gadhafi death squads - told me yesterday. "Someone who does not respect freedom of the press or freedom of speech will not hesitate to trample on every other fundamental human right, including the right to life and liberty. That's why this dictator's reign of terror in my homeland must end." The prince has helped reporters cross the border from Egypt into Libya and says the foreign press "is indispensable in getting the truth out."

Col. Gadhafi doesn't hold a monopoly on using force to suppress the facts. "Since demonstrations began across the Middle East, we have documented more than 300 attacks on journalists," Gypsy Guillen Kaiser, advocacy and communications director for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), explained on Friday. "In Libya, there have been over 60 attacks, including two fatalities. These tragic circumstances have increased general interest in the risks journalists face and the high price paid at times, for reporting the news that we all depend on." Increased interest reflects the fact that press freedoms are under attack all over the place.

Parts of Asia are particularly gruesome. The Philippines, for example, ranks third on CPJ's impunity index - which measures government refusal to solve journalist murder cases - making the archipelago one of the most dangerous places to report on the planet. "Only war-afflicted Iraq and Somalia had worse records" last year, according to "Attacks on the Press in 2010," a CPJ report. "Life is cheap here," a senior Philippine official I've known for many years told me. "It's not like it even costs 100 bucks to have someone killed; for very little money, an irritant can be removed, which is unfortunately how it still works in some rougher corners of our country."

Government thugs in the People's Republic of China - where there is no right that isn't violated by the communist state - routinely arrest journalists for daring to shine a light into the dark shadows of the Middle Kingdom. "At least 34 journalists were imprisoned on Dec. 1, tying Iran for the highest figure in the world and reflecting a significant jump from the 24 imprisonments that CPJ documented in 2009," according to the 2010 report. Internet censorship, regular news blackouts and broad, vague state secrecy laws that make it easy to prosecute journalists all form the foundation of a great wall around the press in China.

Closer to home, the ongoing drug war in Mexico has turned our southern neighbor into a human-rights basket case. Several dozen journalists vanished or were murdered between 2007 and 2010. Hugo Chavez's dictatorship in Venezuela makes the undeclared Mexican civil war look like a day on the beach in Cancun. Caracas authorities have closed down television stations, radio channels, newspapers and magazines that don't toe the official line, while making whatever broadcast media are left carry more than 1,300 hours of Chavez speeches in 2009-10, CPJ reports. Even in America, Big Brother is working to institute tighter Internet controls and broadcast regulations to determine what programmers can air.

All of this bullying of the Fourth Estate occurs because many governments believe a practical media strategy is to simply take the press out of the equation, using violence if necessary. More than 850 journalists have been killed since 1992. In general, where power rests in few hands, there's no room for a robust and inquisitive press. This sad reality is why so many brave reporters are killed in the line of duty.

Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Brett M. Decker

Brett M. Decker

Brett M. Decker, former Editorial Page Editor for The Washington Times, was an editorial page writer and editor for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, Senior Vice President of the Export-Import Bank, Senior Vice President of Pentagon Federal Credit Union, speechwriter to then-House Majority Whip (later Majority Leader) Tom DeLay and reporter and television producer for the legendary Robert ...

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