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At a time when journalists now, more than ever, are the targets of violence and repression - last year 86 journalists were killed - public officials worldwide are "impotent, cowardly and duplicitous" when it comes to defending them, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF). And reporters covering elections this year will especially pay the price.

"The spinelessness of some Western countries and major international bodies is harming press freedom," RSF secretary-general Robert Ménard said in RSF's 2008 press freedom report, which surveys nearly 100 countries. "The lack of determination by democratic countries in defending the values they supposedly stand for is alarming."

Ménard says Western governments are quick to condemn developing countries that have "little strategic value." But when it comes to dealing with China and Russia, Western leaders become "salesmen", and human rights rarely makes it onto the agenda.

RSF's report forecasts physical attacks on journalists during elections in Pakistan (18 February), Iran (14 March) and Zimbabwe (29 March) - key votes in countries whose leaders distrust independent journalists and are invulnerable to outside critics.

Last week in Pakistan, five journalists were critically injured in a bomb blast in Khuzdar, Balochistan, outside the electoral office of an independent candidate. The latest news reports from Pakistan show that despite official curbs on private, live news coverage and claims of many voting irregularities, President Musharraf's party is heading for defeat.

In Russia, where presidential elections will be held on 2 March, RSF bets that journalists will either rally around President Vladimir Putin's choice, or be silenced with bribes, threats or violence. Meanwhile, the EU, dependent on the country's oil and natural gas, will turn a blind eye.

Then there's the duplicity of some "official defenders" - with the UN being the worst offender, says Ménard.

The UN Human Rights Council in Geneva caved into pressure from Iran and Uzbekistan last year, whose human rights violations were not even discussed by the Council. A few months later, the Council did not renew the mandates of two independent experts who investigate rights violations, the special rapporteurs for Belarus and Cuba.

"In 2008, it will be the turn of Sudan, Somalia and Democratic Congo to dismiss these embarrassing inspectors with a wave of the hand," says Ménard.

RSF also voiced concern about journalists working in war zones, especially in Sri Lanka, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Niger, Chad and of course Iraq, where "journalists continue to be buried almost every week."

The report warns of a new kind of censorship in 2008, whether it is using new charges to put journalists behind bars, such as "subversion" or "disturbing the peace", or banning new forms of media, from picture-taking mobile phones to video-sharing websites.

China is the biggest culprit of this new censorship, says RSF, despite committing to improving its human rights record upon being awarded the 2008 Olympics. "Every time a journalist or blogger is released, another goes into prison," says RSF. "China's dissidents will probably be having a hard time this summer."

But the future is not all bleak. This year, RSF hopes that real headway will be made in fighting impunity, when the killers of editor Hrant Dink in Turkey and reporter Anna Politkovskaya in Russia go on trial. At least three journalists are expected to be released in Ethiopia after completing their sentences, and negotiations are under way to free Sudanese Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo in the coming months.

Read "Reporters Without Borders 2008 Annual Report" here:

(19 February 2008)

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