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IFJ calls for release of imprisoned and kidnapped journalists on World Press Freedom Day

(IFJ/IFEX) - The following is an IFJ media release:

Set Journalists Free on May 3rd, Says IFJ as Impunity and Kidnapping Crisis Threatens Media Freedom

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) today called for World Press Freedom Day 2007 to be marked 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 Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary.

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, highlighting the case of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza whose high-profile kidnapping has come to symbolise the plight of thousands of journalists and media staff who face intimidation and violence.

"Alan's abduction has come to symbolise the plight of all journalists who face threats daily," said White. He should be set free now and there should be an end to all such incidents in the future."

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.

Besides Johnston, who was kidnapped by unknown men in Gaza City on 12 March, extremists kidnapped in January a Peruvian photographer working for Agence France-Presse in Gaza and held him for a week. In October, an AP photographer was abducted by Palestinian gunmen and freed later that same day. In August, two Fox News journalists were kidnapped and held for two weeks before being released.

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 as well media kidnappings have 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."

In particular, the IFJ says that journalists held in China, Eritrea and Ethiopia should be released.

Hong Kong reporter Ching Cheong has now spent more than two years behind bars on charges of spying against China. The IFJ is calling again on the Chinese government to release Ching and the many other Chinese journalists jailed, often on trumped-up charges, for merely carrying out their journalistic work.

Ethiopia has acquitted 8 newspaper editors and publishers but still holds at least 12 more that were rounded up following the aftermath of the 2005 general elections. All the prisoners were accused of attempted genocide and treason and faced life imprisonment or the death penalty if convicted.

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 and without any contact with their families or attorneys. Ten were arrested after opposition leaders advocated for democratic reforms in 2001, stories which were widely carried by the press. Five journalists were arrested before the wave of repression began in 2001.

The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries worldwide.

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