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CAPSULE REPORT: Better figures in 2008 mask a hostile climate for journalists, more Internet repression, says RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 30 December 2008 RSF press release:

Press Freedom Round-up 2008
Better figures despite a hostile climate and more Internet repression

In 2008:
60 journalists were killed
1 media worker was killed
673 journalists were arrested
929 were physically attacked or threatened
353 media outlets were censored
29 journalists were kidnapped

Internet:
1 blogger was killed
59 bloggers were arrested
45 bloggers were physically attacked
1,740 websites were blocked, shut down or suspended

By comparison, in 2007:
86 journalists were killed
20 media workers were killed
887 journalists were arrested
1,511 journalists were physically attacked or threatened
528 media outlets were censored
67 journalists were kidnapped

Reporters Without Borders only counted cases in which a link between the violation and the victim's work as a journalist was clearly established or very likely. The figures cover the violations the organisation learned about. They do not cover violations which the victims chose not to report (usually for security reasons). In other words, the same method was used to compile the figures as in previous years, making comparisons possible.

Overview

The Asia-Pacific and Maghreb-Middle East regions are still the deadliest for the press. After Iraq (with 15 journalists killed), the two countries with the highest death tolls are Pakistan (7 killed) and the Philippines (6 killed). The bloodshed continues in Mexico, where four journalists were murdered in connection with their work. The fall in the death toll in Africa (from 12 in 2007 to 3 in 2008) is due above all to the fact that many journalists stopped working, often going into exile, and to the gradual disappearance of news media in war zones such as Somalia.

The number of arrests (for periods of more than 48 hours) is particularly high in Africa, where it is almost routine for journalists to end up in police cells when they upset senior officials or cover subjects that are off-limits. In Iraq (31 arrests), the US military's handling of the security situation often results in Iraqi journalists, including those working for foreign news media, being imprisoned. In China (38 arrests), many cases of detention were attributable to the Olympics. In Burma (17 arrests), outspoken journalists and bloggers were jailed in a crackdown by the military government.

Reporters Without Borders comment:

"The figures may be lower than last year's but this should not mask the fact that intimidation and censorship have become more widespread, including in the west, and the most authoritarian governments have been taking an even tougher line. The quantitative improvement in certain indicators is often due to journalists becoming disheartened and turning to a less dangerous trade or going into exile. We cannot say that 60 deaths, hundreds of arrests and systematic censorship offer grounds for optimism."

Repression shifts to the Internet

The fall in the number of journalists from the traditional media killed or arrested in 2008 does not mean the press freedom situation has improved. As the print and broadcast media evolve and the blogosphere becomes a worldwide phenomenon, predatory activity is increasingly focusing on the Internet.

In this respect, the figures speak for themselves. In 2008, someone was, for the first time, killed while acting as a "citizen journalist." It was Chinese businessman Wei Wenhua, who was beaten to death by "chengguan" (municipal police officers) while filming a clash with demonstrators in Tianmen (in Hubei province) on 7 January. Cases of online censorship were recorded in 37 countries, above all China (93 websites censored), Syria (162 websites censored) and Iran (38 websites censored).

There are democracies that do not lag far behind in terms of online surveillance and repression. Taboos established by the monarchy in Thailand and by the military in Turkey are so tenacious that incautious Internet users are increasingly being monitored and punished by the police. Video-sharing websites such as YouTube and Dailymotion are favourite targets of government censors. It is becoming more and more common for sites to be blocked or filtered because of content that officials have deemed "offensive." A visceral reaction from some governments towards participatory websites, especially social networking sites, is beginning to give rise to cases of "mass censorship." The censorship of sites such as Twitter (in Syria) or Facebook (blocked in Syria and Tunisia, and filtered in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates) leads to massive amounts of content being blocked - an effect that is considerably compounded when combined with other standard methods of control.

Governments are increasingly using imprisonment as a response to criticism by bloggers. In China, 10 cyber-dissidents were arrested, 31 were physically attacked or threatened, and at least three were tried and convicted. In Iran, Reporters Without Borders registered 18 arrests, 31 physical attacks and 10 convictions. Online free expression is also curtailed in Syria (8 arrests and 3 convictions), Egypt (6 arrests) and Morocco (2 arrests and 2 convictions).

Internet freedom has been crushed with particular severity in Burma, where the military government has arrested and tried blogger and comedian Zarganar and the young cyber-dissident Nay Phone Latt in a disgraceful manner and sentenced them to incredibly severe jail terms (59 years for the former, 20 years for the latter). These two men join Burma's many other political prisoners, who include 16 journalists.

Reporters Without Borders comment:

"The growth in the Internet's influence and potential is being accompanied by greater vigilance on the part of some governments with already marked security concerns. Every year, repressive governments acquire new tools that allow them to monitor the Internet and track online data. The Internet is gradually becoming a battleground for citizens with criticisms to express and journalists who are censored in the traditional media. As such, it poses a threat to those in power who are used to governing as they wish with impunity."

To read the full report, click: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=29797

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