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Media Groups Say 2006 Deadliest Yet For Journalists

January 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- According to several international press-freedom groups, 2006 was the deadliest year for journalists.

Iraq was the most dangerous country for members of the press, but Latin America, the Philippines, and Russia also emerged as places of high risk.

The media-watchdog groups have released year-end reports that cite death tolls ranging from 55 to 155, but all agree the past year was the deadliest on record for media professionals.

Body Count

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based group, reported that 55 journalists died in 2006 as a direct result of their work. The organization is investigating another 27 journalist deaths to determine if they were related to their professional activity.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group, recorded the deaths of 81 journalists and 32 media assistants. For the fourth year in a row, it said Iraq was the deadliest reporting zone, with 64 killed, up from 29 last year.

The group's Tala Dowlatshahi says insurgents in Iraq realize that media attention for their cause will follow the abduction or killing of a media worker.

"What we're seeing now, juxtaposed against previous decades, is a long string of attacks, deliberate attacks, against journalists," Dowlatshahi said. "And these are not only journalists in the traditional sense, these are translators, these are drivers, they are stringers. Anyone affiliated with journalists in a war zone gets attacked, targeted, murdered, at higher rates."

So many deaths are occurring, she said, that most Western news companies no longer send in their own people to do reporting, but hire local Iraqis instead. It is those Iraqis, and often their families, who are being targeted in numbers so high they are often not even recorded, said Dowlatshahi.

Global Danger

Non-conflict zones are little safer for journalists. In many countries, reporters who criticized the government in 2006 were risking their lives. Dowlatshahi cited Mexico and Russia in particular.

"Journalists who are reporting on situations the government clearly does not support, journalists who are reporting in countries like Mexico where a number of journalists have been killed for reportedly tying the government to drug cartels, they have been murdered in very high numbers these past two years," Dowlatshahi says. "Journalists in Russia reporting on exposing [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's government and its practices involving policies in Chechnya, are being murdered."

In China, Dowlatshahi said, journalists and Internet bloggers are being snatched off the street, threatened, and often jailed for as long as 20 years for writing against the government line.

'Unprecedented Brutality'

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) says 155 journalists and media workers were killed or died unexplained deaths during the last 12 months. It calls 2006 a year of "unprecedented brutality."

The murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist and Kremlin critic, and the prison death of Olgusapar Muradova, a correspondent in Turkmenistan for RFE/RL, focused attention on governments who condone or ignore violence against members of the press.

Noting that prosecutors charged Muradova with several crimes as an excuse to arrest her, the IFJ's Rachel Cohen said the fabrication of charges is a common way for governments to target journalists.

"This idea that journalists are somehow fair targets for these charges -- whether they're prosecuted for doing their jobs, or targeted with violent attacks for doing their job, or all of a sudden these other charges come out," Cohen says. "It's very troubling to us and we worry that the situation is getting worse."

On December 23, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution condemning "deliberate attacks" on journalists in conflict zones.

Roland Bless, the director of the office of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, told RFE/RL the resolution is a necessary reminder of the risks journalists face and the international legal obligations governments are under to protect members of the press and prosecute their attackers.

Despite such laws, Bless said in many places there is no justice for crimes against the press.

"What we do really object to is the climate of impunity that persists in some countries, that journalists can be not only killed but intimidated or physically harassed," Bless says. "And nothing happens after that. Going after journalists is accepted practice in a given environment and this is something that we really object to. This goes beyond Russia. We have this in other countries; we had a bit of that in Southeast Europe for some time. It has improved a little bit, but we have intimidation and harassment of journalists in Western countries. We should not be pointing only in one direction here."

Bless noted the lack of pluralism in Central Asian media, which he said contributes to a tense environment for journalists. Although the situation varies among the five Central Asian republics, print and broadcast outlets tend to be controlled by the state.

By contrast, he said Russia has more media diversity and a more "mature" media environment. But the death of Politkovskaya, who was murdered outside her Moscow apartment in October by unknown assailants, is a sign that all is not well.

"The murder of a journalist has a chilling effect on the media, and that of course is the case with Anna Politkovskaya," Bless says. "And the head of this office here [OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Miklos Haraszti] has asked the Russian authorities not only to investigate this crime, which is an obligation in any rule of law environment, but also to inform the public about the results of this investigation, to also reassure the public that the government and the authorities take the protection of journalists seriously and that they really do honor their commitments to enable journalists to work in a media-friendly environment and to do their job."

Bless said so far the Russian authorities have not given the OSCE a direct answer to their request for an investigation and report of their findings.

(RFE/RL 08.i.07)

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