Journalists under fire

12 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Liberian editor’s experience with military hostility is common around the world

Observer photo by James Sanborn
Liberian journalist Josephus Moses Gray speaks at the National Press Club.


WASHINGTON – When the Liberian general barged into the newspaper’s office, Josephus Moses Gray,editor-in-chief, was at his desk editing articles. It was early morning on October 16, 1985, and Liberia, on the western coast of Africa, had already suffered two years of civil war. The general aimed his gun at Gray’s head and demanded to be allowed to publish a response to an unflattering article.

Aware that outright refusal would mean death, Gray pleaded with the general, Isaac Musaah, to allow him a minute to turn on the computers. “He accepted my plea but only gave me 30 seconds,” Gray said, recounting the incident at the National Press Club. Gray immediately darted into the adjacent room and ordered a technician to run to the basement and knock out the power.

Once the electricity was out, Gray informed the general that without power the story could not be typed and transmitted to the publisher. The general was upset but decided there was nothing that could be done and left without hurting Gray or his staff.

Liberia isn’t the only place where intimidation, kidnapping, murder and torture are daily realities for journalists. Like Gray, journalists around the world find themselves caught between warring factions and under the oppression of aggressors who seek to silence the truth.

As reported by the Associated Press, last week Shiite militiamen killed 11 Iraqi journalists at new local TV station. The station, which was organizing its programming, aired nationalistic songs critical of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The songs sparked suspicions that the station was sympathetic to the Sunni population and drew the attention of Shiite militiamen who carried out the attack.

Statistics published by the Committee to Protect Journalists show only one in three journalists are killed in combat, contrary to common misperception. Two out of three are not killed in the line of fire, but murdered in reprisal for their reporting. Local reporters, not foreign correspondents, comprise most of the casualties.

Between 1993 and 2002, 366 journalists were killed worldwide, according to the committee. More than half of the 366 journalist were murdered, yet there were arrests and prosecution in only 21 cases. This means in 94 percent of cases, journalists are murdered with impunity.

The Committee found that in one fourth of cases, these murders were plotted by government or military officials. In eight percent of cases, paramilitary groups aligned with the government were responsible. This means that arrest and prosecution in most cases is unlikely, particularly when the judiciary is under the influence of politicians or the military.

“Most journalists found themselves in a squeeze,” Gray said recounting civil war in Liberia which raged from 1989 until 2003. “They were faced with the choice of either reporting positively about the rebels or government soldiers depending on where they sought refuge, or face the wrath of one of the groups. This meant life or execution.”

Gray, along with editors from Columbia, Uzbekistan, Liberia and Sri Lanka, spoke at the “Journalists Under Fire” forum at the National Press Club Oct. 11. These countries are among the most dangerous for journalists.

Gray spoke of a case in 1994 when one Liberian rebel group overran another group’s stronghold. “A journalist was captured,” he said, “and his 10 fingers were cut off by the rival group. The journalist was forced to commit suicide on the grounds that he had been rendered useless to life.”

Each panelist spoke of difficulties reporting facts in a country where violence and corruption are prevalent and where journalists are often killed with impunity. They mentioned imposed censorship, but also spoke of self-censorship. Some journalists ignore stories for fear of reprisal, said Rosa Agudelo, editor of Diario Occidente in Columbia. In countries where the rule of law is eroded and there is no independent judiciary, journalists know that ruffling feathers could cost them their lives.

The brunt of the danger is not born by foreign correspondents who breeze in, file their stories and fly home. The real danger is to local beat reporters who must stay and live with the consequences of their reporting.

The recent case of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya illustrates this danger. She was murdered in her Moscow apartment building on October 7 in what appears to have been a contract killing. Politkovskaya’s critical coverage citing the Russian militairy for human rights abuses in Chechnya apparently drew the wrath of the Russian government. During her carrer, she was threatened, beaten, tortured, forced into exile and finally murdered for her reporting.

Russian President, Vladamir Putin, pledged his support for an investigation of the murder, but it is unlikely her case will be solved. Since 2000, 12 Russian journalists have been killed and not one of the cases has been solved, the Committee said.

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