Think yourself lucky if your big worry is the future of journalism

The British media is fond of studying itself. The relationship and rivalry between print and digital journalism is today’s preoccupation. Can printed and digital publications survive alongside each other and, if so, for how long? Is one platform better than the other? Are newspapers doomed? And so on.

And on and on. This never-ending neurosis about technology and the future crowds out some timeless struggles going on beyond the borders of the media-rich continents of Europe and America. The journalists involved in these timeless battles over free expression do not have the luxury of time to blog about the editorial standards at

Do the names U Win Tin, Al- Sanussi Al-Darrat and Dawit Isaac ring any bells?

The oldest of the five journalists in prison in Burma is 76-year-old U Win Tin, who has spent the past 17 years of his life behind bars, detained under a vaguely-worded security law. He is a former newspaper editor and adviser to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

If he is still alive, the Libyan journalist Al-Sanussi Al-Darrat would hold the grim record of being the journalist incarcerated for the longest stretch anywhere in the world. Even the date of his arrest is unclear: somewhere between 1973 and 1975. The Libyan regime has never revealed any information about him; many people believe that he is dead.

Africa’s largest prison for journalists is Eritrea. Fifteen journalists were held in a press crackdown in 2001; few have been formally charged. One of the 15, Dawit Isaac, who has dual Eritrean/Swedish nationality, was released in 2005. He was free for just two days before being taken back to jail.

If the circumstances sound at all familiar, it is because even in an era of rapid and accelerating change, some ugly realities stay the same. In these countries and others like them, journalists worry more about the censor and the secret policeman than they do about citizen journalism and cyberchat.

There are still governments which think that journalists should not damage the "dignity and honour" of the head of state (Kazakhstan, for instance). There are governments which charge journalists reporting inconvenient truths with espionage (China, Cuba), which wreck printing presses (Zimbabwe, Gambia, Kenya), which force newspaper owners to sack editors not to government taste (Russia), which manipulate laws to penalise papers they don’t like (South Korea), which turn a lazy eye to the murder of journalists (Bangladesh, Philippines, Colombia).

There are more organisations and websites tracking restrictions on press freedom than there used to be. But that just means that we know more about the abuses of law, democracy and rights that happen. Alas, it does not mean that fewer journalists are arrested, jailed, harassed, threatened or killed.

And because these cases rarely stay in the news or are hardly ever raised by statesmen and diplomats, they can be easily forgotten. Spare a thought for the forgotten men and women on World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday 3 May. We rightly worry about journalists in Iraq. But how often do we think about the next three most dangerous countries on earth for journalists, Bangladesh, Lebanon and the Philippines?

Some of the threats to press freedoms are as old as government itself. Some governments — the kingdom of Nepal is the most glaring current example — are unaware of, or indifferent to, international criticism of attacks on the press.

But some governments have shifted the ways they put pressure on their media in order to obscure what they’re doing.

Here are some of the recent trends: ■ Sifting and controlling the internet.

The Chinese government’s huge web-censorship machine leads the field; one estimate puts the number of "cyberdissidents" in Chinese jails at 45.

But last year bloggers were also jailed in Iran, Tunisia and Syria.

■ Criminal defamation cases, where the financial penalties are often designed to cripple the media whose employees are the target of the charge.

Cases of this sort are currently active in Mongolia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ghana.

■ The murder of journalists, which governments are powerless or unwilling to prevent or to investigate. In countries such as Belarus, Colombia and the Philippines, claims are increasing that the authorities seem oddly untroubled by the deaths of journalists.

■ Manipulating ownership. Closing newspapers and going after editors attracts a lot of unwelcome attention.

Ensuring that all papers of sizeable circulation are owned by loyal friends preserves the appearance of plurality while reducing criticism to a minimum.

A Russian government speciality.

■ Smearing journalists. This may have something to do with the rise of the internet as a vehicle for allegations that are particularly hard to check or to correct.

The Tunisian journalists Sihem Bensedrine and Mohammed Abbou have been the targets of malicious rumours in government-supporting media.

In June, the World Editors Forum and the World Association of Newspapers are due to present their annual award, the Golden Pen of Freedom, to Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who campaigned to identify the leading Iranian figures implicated in the murders of five writers and intellectuals in 1998.

The award looked like a symbolic gesture to a dogged writer who has been in prison since 2000 and whose chances of attending an awards ceremony in Moscow did not look good. (Russia, a country with its own media freedom issues, could not be a more appropriate place for these debates just before Vladimir Putin hosts the G8 summit).

But in March, Akbar Ganji was released in Tehran. His passport and identity documents remain in the hands of the authorities and he has been warned to keep a low profile. So he may still not make it to Moscow, but at least he is at liberty. In press freedom cases like this, gains are measured in inches.

George Brock is the World Editors Forum president and Saturday editor of The Times.

No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *