Attacks against journalists on the increase in 1996

Monday, January 6, 1997

Journalists around the world found themselves under increasing threats of both violent and legislative assaults in 1996, reports the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (CCPJ) in its annual report.

At least 53 journalists were reported murdered in 1996 for practising their profession, according to reports received by the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) Clearing House, a project of the CCPJ. "While scores of journalists are murdered every year for their work, the more common threat for journalists is the courtroom, and the enemy, more often than not, is their own government," said Wayne Sharpe, Executive Director of the CCPJ. In 1996 alone, 166 journalists were charged and brought to trial for their work, 80 were sentenced, and eight were handed suspended sentences. These numbers show a marked increase over 1995.

The favourite weapon used against journalists in the courtroom is "criminal libel", a charge that carries not only a fine, but prison time as well. Criminal charges for the printed or broadcast word are unconscionable by international standards of law and human rights, but in Cameroon, Tonga, Croatia and countless other countries, journalists fight for basic freedom of expression rights we in Canada take for granted.

In Cameroon, one of the few countries where pre-publication censorship still officially exists, Pius Njaw├│, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Le Messager and the cartoon supplement Le Messager Popoli, was arrested and detained in October for publishing an editorial and two cartoons critical of President Paul Biya. He was later released from prison but is still under threat of imprisonment pending his appeal of the charges. In a response to a protest letter by the CCPJ, the communications minister of Cameroon asked, "Should we now conclude that those who can afford to pay fines and damages can freely trade insults and walk roughshod over the dignity of others?"

In Tonga, an archipelago of islands in western Polynesia, two journalists with the Times of Tonga newspaper and a member of parliament were found in contempt of parliament and sentenced to 30 days in jail. The decision was handed down because the paper published a notice to impeach a high-ranking minister which had not yet been presented to parliament.

While declaring that press freedom has always been a reality in Tonga, a government representative justified the prison term by saying "this is not an issue of press freedom; it is [the reporter's] illegal use of the freedom of the press." Reacting to a flurry of international protest from freedom of expression groups, which she labelled "Media Terrorism Against Tonga," the official said the 30-day prison term was not draconian, adding that "a journalist is subject to the same laws as any citizen." This is a familiar refrain.

One bright note among the scores of questionable legal battles in 1996 was the case of the Feral Tribune newspaper in Croatia. After adding "crimes of the media" to the country's penal code in March, the government of President Franjo Tudjman brought criminal charges against Feral Tribune editor-in-chief Viktor Ivancic and reporter Marinko Culic for "rudely and falsely slandering" the president. The offending article was titled "Bones in the Mixer" and was critical of Tudjman's plan to turn a World War II concentration camp, where thousands of Serbs were killed by Croatian Fascists, into a memorial that would also honour Croats killed under Communist rule in the former Yugoslavia.

The journalists, who faced three-year prison terms for the article, were acquitted. The presiding judge ruled that the offending material was "obviously absurd and merely intended to pass judgement on political activity." The acquittal, a significant victory for press freedom in Croatia, has since been appealed by the state prosecutor.


The killing of journalists continued at an alarming rate in 1996, with at least 53 deaths. In Algeria, seven journalists were murdered in a nation where 58 journalists have been assassinated since May 1993. Journalists are the prime targets of the Islamic Salvation Front in a concerted campaign to assassinate secular intellectuals and professionals in its conflict with the government.

In Chechnya, the war was finally conceded by Moscow, but not before another four journalists lost their lives in 1996. By conservative estimates, 10 journalists were killed in the line of duty in Chechnya from the time Russian troops invaded Grozny in December 1994. Eight others, including U.S. photojournalist Andrew Shumack, are missing and presumed dead.

The most high-profile killing among journalists in 1996 was the gangland murder in Dublin of The Independent reporter Veronica Guerin. Guerin, renowned for her investigative reporting on organized crime in Ireland, was shot dead in June by two men on a motorcycle as she stood outside a hotel. Guerin had recently obtained an exclusive interview with "Mad Dog", the leading mafia chief in Dublin. One person has been charged in connection with her murder.

Thun Bun Ly of Cambodia was the unfortunate victim of both legislative and physical attacks. Ly was convicted twice in 1995 on "disinformation" and "defamation" charges for publishing articles and cartoons in his newspaper that were critical of the two ruling prime ministers. While Ly was awaiting his chance to take his appeal to court, he was gunned down in the street in broad daylight last May. Clearly someone was determined to silence Thun Bun Ly, one way or another.

In addition to the killings in 1996, 323 journalists were assaulted or beaten while covering news events or because of their reports.


In Canada, media ownership concentration was the most pressing freedom of expression issue in 1996. With the acquisition of the Southam newspaper chain in 1996, Conrad Black's Hollinger Inc., which owns newspapers around the world including the London Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post, now controls 58 of Canada's 105 daily newspapers.

Media ownership concentration has been a concern in Canada for several decades. The Special Senate Committee on Mass Media reported in 1970 that the three biggest newspaper chains had increased their share of daily circulation from 25 to 45 per cent since 1958. The Kent Royal Commission reported in 1980 that the figure had risen to 57 per cent. Today, the figure is 72 per cent.

Concerned about the ramifications of this concentration of ownership, free speech groups, unions, and journalist associations across Canada joined forces in 1996 to create the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

The Council of Canadians (COC), a member of the Campaign, launched a court challenge of Hollinger's takeover of the Southam chain in an attempt to make the Federal Court review the deal. The COC faults the Competition Bureau for considering only advertising and ignoring editorial concerns in approving the takeover. The court challenge was rebuffed.

The members of the Campaign say, "If the trend toward concentration and conglomeration continues, our voices - the voices of working people, women, youth, students, minority groups, and public interest organizations - will be further shut out from public debate.... The truth is without our voices, public affairs reporting will only further reflect the narrow views of the political and corporate elite."

The outspoken Black has used media owned by Hollinger Inc. to counter criticisms of the takeover. After the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a two-part documentary about the media baron last fall, Black forced his papers to publish his three-page rebuttal, which states that he declined to co-operate with the documentary's producers because he was "accurately informed that it [the CBC] was preparing a smear job," and that the film "alleges that my associates and I constitute a menace to freedom of expression in this country."

In a letter to the Editor of the Globe and Mail, Sharpe said, "Freedom of expression and the press are not artificial constructs designed by anyone, whether to protect individuals from government interference or protect individuals from the effects of media concentration.... They are basic human rights. Anyone who creates a climate in which free speech suffers violates these basic human rights."

As part of its program to monitor developments in this area, the CCPJ is devoting a portion of its "Freedom of Expression" World Wide Web site to collect and post examples of the effects of media ownership concentration in Canada. For more information, visit the site at


Looking forward to 1997, proponents of press freedom are facing the beginning of a worldwide attack against the "alternative" media - the Internet. China, Singapore, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Zambia, and the United States - with its much-maligned Communications Decency Act - are among the nations that introduced restrictions on access to information and freedom of speech on the Internet in 1996. The last truly-free medium may not be free much longer as governments catch up with the technology.