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Fighting for press freedom

by Archives November 17, 2004

The front lines of battle, you most likely think of soldiers, peacekeepers, or emergency doctors who selflessly tend to the fallen wounded.

This is, of course, a reasonable image, but lacks a focus on the heros that report these conflicts to the world. Behind their cameras and pens, reporters are also amidst the gunfire, wielding their media weapons to document unspeakable horrors that otherwise would go unheard in other parts of the globe.And, like those who serve their country or act as relief workers, they pay a high price for being there.

Last year alone, 45 journalists were killed, and 128 have beenimprisoned while putting their lives on the line in countries where there is no press freedom.

Fortunately, the international watchdog association Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres, RSF) serves to defend the rights of these media professionals. In addition to providing victims with legal services and creating safe havens in war zones, they also support journalists threatened by censorship in their own countries. As it has occurred annually for the past 15 years, the organization is holding Jailed Journalists’ Support Day on Nov. 24 to draw attention to reporters who have become imprisoned for publishing, translating, assisting, or even reading censored information.On this day, various press outlets and organisations “adopt” an imprisoned journalist in attempt to publicize their case.

Emily Jacquard is the North American representative for the European-based organization and is certain that this day will bring freedom to a few of those in jail, as it has done in the past. “Sponsorship allows the media to demonstrate solidarity with colleagues who share their passion for their work as journalists,” she says. “It allows the public to be made aware of their situation by putting pressure on offending governments, leading them to pay attention to the fate of their prisoners. Sponsorship constitutes a form of life insurance directly contributing to the protection of those imprisoned.”

In countries such as North Korea, Nepal, Iran and China, journalists can be thrown in jail for so little as using the wrong word or photo. RSF maintains that as an organization, they have been instrumental in helping to free people who fall prey to these circumstances- some as soon as six months after the support day.

One prisoner being sponsored is journalist Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, who was arrested in Cuba on March 18, 2003 and received a 20-year prison sentence. His “crime” was launching a publication that broached subjects ignored by the government-owned media, such as racism and the Varela Project, a citizens inititative which collected 11,000 signatures to petition for democratic change. At the time he was also an active member of RSF, and the government charged him with acting “in the interests of a foreign country with the detriment of Cuban independence or territorial integrity,” and threatened Alfonso with the possibility of the death penalty. Being held in a jail with harsh conditions and violent criminals, he began a hunger strike on Dec. 8 of last year, as a sign of protest.

He ended his strike after 16 days when his requests were met. RSF has since protested outside the cuban tourist office in Paris to demand the release of 30 journalists who are currently imprisoned there. They hope that Nov. 24 will make a difference in Cuba, second on RSF’s list of 10 countries where conditions for journalists who advocate free speech are intolerable.

Chair of Concordia’s journalism department, Michael Gasher, sees organizations like RSF as extremely vital, and would like to see the media community getting more involved. “Journalists are responsible for making the public aware of all forms of injustice, and they have a particular responsibility to their profession to expose practices that are used to impede and intimidate fellow journalists from doing their work,” he says. “It might be individual journalists who are imprisoned, but their imprisonment is an attack on the entire practice, and an attempt to intimidate all journalists.”

RSF was founded in 1985 by Parisian activist Robert Menard, who wanted to publish stories from countries that weren’t getting proper media coverage. He did so by recruiting journalists to report crimes and injustices in places such as Africa and South America.

It was four years later, in 1989, that RSF became the press freedom watchdog that they are today, where the focus is on the injustices journalists face across the world and promoting journalistic freedom.

Another person RSF is campaigning for this November is not even a journalist. In fact, Pham Hong Son was working as a medical doctor and local representative of a foreign pharmaceutical company in Vietnam when he was arrested on March 27 2002. He was sentenced to 13 years of imprisonment for translatiing and posting democracy-themed articles on the internet, which the government deemed as spying.

Much has been done by the RSF to free Son, but their attempts have not yet moved the Vietnemiese government to action.

Though there are ostensibly many stories like Son’s, in which attempts of liberation have failed, Gasher believes it’s enough to know that an organization such as RSF exists. “For one thing it generates solidarity among journalists, who share the same values about truth and informing the public, regardless of what kind of reporting they do and where they do it,” he says.

“It gives journalists working in particularly difficult circumstances some sense of a support network, a network that can stick up for them and confront power — especially governments, when necessary. They are not alone. Related to that, it creates a source of publicity for these kinds of issues.”

Only about a week ago two journalists were arrested in Iran, where the government is in control of all the press released in the country. Yet the RSF feels that they have made a significant dent in the problem. “The worst prison in the world is being forgotten,” Jacquard says. “That is our motto and I think it is true.”

For more information

Visit www.rsf.org where you can sign a petition, and learn

more on how to get involved.

Silencing the media: figures compiled by RSF:

-128 Journalists in prison, including 27 in China and 26 in Cuba

-45 journalists and 14 media assistants killed this year

-46 journalists and media assistants killed in Iraq since the war began in 2003

-Over 350 media censored this year

-68 cyber dissidents imprisoned, including 60 in China alone.

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