- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 16, 2008


The second of two editorials.

The report on press freedoms issued Wednesday by Reporters Without Borders condemns the “spinelessness of some Western countries” that refuse to use their economic and political might to urge repressive governments, particularly in the Eastern Hemisphere, to open up their regimes to scrutiny from a free press. The organization also warned of problems in places like Pakistan, Russia and Iran, which all hold elections in coming weeks.

Western states, the report said, “are all quick to condemn developing countries that have little strategic value, but things are different when it comes to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Chinese President Hu Jintao.” The report condemned Western leaders who “put away their lawyer’s robes and become salesmen.”

Freedom of speech is inextricably tied to other basic human rights; dozens of leaders from Eastern countries identified in the report are failing to take the first step of allowing free expression, fearful it could lead to a diminution of their power. While it is true in some cases that commerce can be an impetus for other human rights, companies can and should do more to encourage these governments to allow free expression.

Within the Eastern Hemisphere, China, the Middle East and sections of Africa are among those with the most egregious repressors of speech.

In China, increased pressure from other countries anticipating in the Summer Olympics led Beijing to declare some concessions for foreign journalists. But despite this posturing, some 180 foreign correspondents were arrested or harassed in 2007, according to the report. Chinese authorities routinely jail and engineer institutional purges of journalists and bloggers who refuse to regurgitate the party message. Last year, China increased its antagonism toward journalists by imposing censorship guidelines. (We laud the good judgement of director Steven Spielberg, who this week withdrew his offer to serve as artistic adviser for the Olympics because China isn’t doing enough to pressure the government of Sudan — another problematic region for journalists — to intervene in the crisis in Darfur.)

In Russia, journalists working in non-state-owned media in 2007 were pressured to support Mr. Putin’s favored political parties in March 2007 elections. Last year, at least two opposition journalists were forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals, a tactic from Soviet times used to discredit dissenters. Russian officials also refused to punish those who attacked and murdered journalists such at Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative reporter killed in 2006. Also, the BBC’s Russian-language service was silenced on the FM band after its business partner in Russia was forced by authorities to end its business agreement with the BBC.

In Pakistan, six reporters were killed and nearly 250 were arrested. There were more than 100 instances of recorded threats of physical assault against journalists. Perpetrators of these crimes ranged from the army and Islamists to political militants and organized crime. President Pervez Musharraf, who was criticized by lawyers and judges in nationwide protests, harassed and temporarily shut down privately owned television and radio stations. Journalists working in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan were particularly targeted by the Taliban and their jihadist allies, according to Reporters Without Borders. These terrorists target not only journalists but their families as well.

In Burma, the military junta was challenged by a major protest movement led by Buddhist monks and responded with violence. This included murdering a Japanese reporter and arresting 15 Burmese journalists, as well as suspending Internet transmissions for two weeks.

In Somalia, Africa’s deadliest country for journalists, hired guns have them targeted. Last year, eight reporters were killed and four injured. Some 50 were in exile.

What’s expected in 2008? “It looks like 2008 will be an even tougher year for the media,” as Reporters Without Borders noted in the introduction to its report. “Journalists are likely to be physically attacked and arrested” covering the Feb. 18 elections in Pakistan, it said, and “[j]ournalists are murdered in Russia every year and physical attacks on them are frequent.” Russia’s elections are scheduled for March 2.

In Iran, the report said: “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under increasing pressure, including from fellow hardliners, and is trying to reduce the influence of the media before parliamentary elections in mid-March. Journalists not already in prison are summoned by judges who remind them they are only free conditionally. The most outspoken and critical Internet websites are closing one after another because of official censorship.”

The situations around the globe (as we editorialized on the Western Hemisphere in our Feb. 13 editions [www.washingtontimes.com/article/20080213/EDITORIAL/107638582/1013]) are disheartening but not permanent. We can and must do more.

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