World Press Freedom Day: South Asia Media Commission deplores journalist killings

MUMBAI: Noting that World Press Freedom Day on May 3 “serves as a reminder that our right to freedom of expression is all too often violated,” the South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) today said the killing of four journalists in the region showed that media freedom had suffered continued decline.

Afghan journalist Ajmal Nakshbandi and his associate Sayed Agha, a media worker, and Selvarajah Rajivarnam, a reporter for Tamil newspaper ‘Uthayan’, and Chandraboas, editor of the Tamil-language monthly magazine ‘Nilam, in Sri Lanka have been killed this year.
The Editor of ‘Minivan Daily’, Aminath Najeeb, faces charges of disobedience for publishing two articles. This may mean 18 months in jail if she is found guilty. A third charge is also pending but the government has so far not identified the offending article.

Ms. Najeeb says she is "dead scared" she will be jailed. "If I am sent to prison, I fear for my life," she said.

The South Asia Media Commission (SAMC) said in a statement that "May 3 serves as a reminder that our right to freedom of expression is all too often violated -- and that many journalists face jail or even death to give us each day our daily news".

The South Asia Media Commission is a new media watchdog formed last month to monitor journalists' safety and violation of media rights. It is envisaged to promptly respond to such violations to press for remedial action. It is headed by N Ram, and Najam Sethi is the Secretary-General.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, as outlined in article
19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers".

"World Press Freedom Day reminds both citizens and governments that they need to reaffirm this right "as an essential foundation of the information society", the statement said.

"But violence, psychological and physical, threats to life and livelihood, kidnapping, detention and expulsion, arrests and detentions continued for media persons during the first quarter of 2007 in South Asia. Media houses like Geo in Pakistan and Star in India were vandalized and media products robbed, banned and banished. Commercial advertisements and newsprint were used to bully media managements to submit to the whims and wishes of those in authority. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority pressured the private Aaj tv channel in Pakistan to toe the government line by temporarily suspending its transmission after issuing a show-cause notice for what it said violating the rules and regulations by broadcasting talk-shows, debates and news about the judicial crisis in the country," the Commission's regional coordinator Husain Naqi lamented.

"Resort to violence against the media during the first quarter of 2007 was considered as an effective instrument to bully and intimidate it for enforcing a cover-up to the misdeeds of perpetrators and force tilt in media coverage for the activities of their organizations," he said.

Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called for marking World Press Freedom Day 2007 with the release of journalists in jail or taken hostage. “This year we celebrate World Press Freedom Day at a time when more colleagues than ever are victims of ruthless hostage-taking and kidnapping,” said IFJ General Secretary Aidan White.

The IFJ is also asking governments to urgently review all cases of journalists imprisoned for doing their work and to set them free warning that a culture of persecution of media only encourages targeting of reporters by extremists.

Recent high-profile kidnapping cases of foreign correspondents in Gaza, Afghanistan and Iraq have captured the media spotlight, but in fact kidnapping is a serious danger for media workers around the world, says the IFJ.

“May 3rd is a day of celebration for free expression, but we have nothing to celebrate unless our colleagues are set free,” said White.

The IFJ listed cases of the BBC correspondent Alan Johnston kidnapped in Gaza, a Peruvian photographer working for Agence France-Presse kidnapped in Gaza and held for a week, an Associated Press photographer abducted by Palestinian gunmen and freed later that same day and two Fox News journalists kidnapped and held for two weeks before being released last year.

There have also been high-profile kidnappings of reporters in Afghanistan, where Taliban extremists captured Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and the two Afghan men working with him. The Afghan government released Taliban prisoners to secure Magistrocomo’s release but his driver, Sayed Agha, and local journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, who was working as Mastrogiacomo’s interpreter, were brutally killed by their captors.

In Iraq, armed groups have kidnapped foreign correspondents and scores of local media. Many of the Iraqi journalists have been killed by their abductors.

In other parts of the world, media kidnappings have also become frighteningly routine. In Sri Lanka there have been numerous abductions of journalists, and only some of them have been released. Pakistan is also well known as the site of the kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl but local media have also been the victims of similar attacks.

In Mexico, journalist Saúl Noé Martínez Ortega was found dead a week after he was kidnapped by heavily armed men in Agua Prieta, a border town close to the United States. Martínez Ortega was a police reporter for Interdiario and was reportedly investigating the disappearance of one of his sources at the time of his abduction.

“On World Press Freedom Day, we call on governments all over the world to make the protection of journalists a priority and to ensure that anyone who kidnaps a journalist is brought to justice swiftly,” White said. “Where journalists have been imprisoned for doing their work, they must be set free. Governments who persecute journalists only encourage illegal groups to target media staff.”

Hong Kong reporter Ching Cheong has now spent more than two years behind bars on charges of spying against China. Ethiopia has acquitted 8 newspaper editor and publishers but still holds at least 12 more that were rounded up following the aftermath of the 2005 general elections.

In Eritrea, the government has engaged in an ongoing reign of terror against the independent press. Fifteen journalists including Swedish-Eritrean Dawit Isaac have been held in secret detention centres in Eritrea without trial for five years or more.

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