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Impunity, war and elections behind journalists killed in 2009

In a worldwide analysis of journalists killed in 2009, IFEX members report that most are murdered in their own country. Local journalists pay the highest price for informing the world about wars, elections, corruption and censorship, or the destruction of the environment. In their year-end reports, IFEX members highlight how journalists are targeted as a result of war, impunity and elections.

In its 2009 roundup, "Wars and disputed elections: the most dangerous stories for journalists", Reporters Without Borders (RSF) records a 26 percent increase in killed journalists compared to 2008 - up to 76 from 60. It cites the election-related massacre of 31 journalists in the Philippines and the vicious sweep of Iranian journalists and bloggers in arrests and convictions in the aftermath of disputed elections as the most "appalling" events of 2009.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) records at least 70 journalists killed in 2009 - the highest annual number ever recorded by CPJ - as a result of long-term violent trends. "Most of the victims were local reporters covering news in their own communities. The perpetrators assumed, based on precedent, that they would never be punished. Whether the killings are in Iraq or the Philippines, in Russia or Mexico, changing this assumption is the key to reducing the death toll." In the Philippines, the government permitted politically motivated violence against journalists to go unpunished and it "became a part of the culture" says CPJ.

Many of the deadliest countries for press freedom have a history of impunity, says CPJ. Three journalists were killed in Russia, including Abdulmalik Akhmedilov, a Dagestani editor who severely criticised government officials for silencing religious and political dissent. In Sri Lanka, editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, known for his critical reporting of the government, was beaten to death with iron bars and wooden poles.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) arrived at a total of 137 journalists and media workers killed in 2009 - 113 of them targeted. The IFJ list is coordinated with the International News Safety Institute (INSI) and includes 24 accidental deaths, as compared to 109 killings in 2008. It also includes all media staff who die on the job. The year ended with a "rush of media killings," says IFJ; a gruesome tally that should prompt governments to do more to protect journalists.

Iranian authorities were overwhelmed by opposition to the June elections and responded in a brutal fashion with arrests of journalists. "This wave of violence bodes ill for 2010, when crucial elections are scheduled in Côte d'Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Burma, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories," said RSF. Election-related violence against journalists was also seen in Tunisia and Honduras, reports Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) in its year-end review.

For the first time, RSF took a tally of journalists forced into exile in 2009 with a total of about 160. Numbers were particularly dramatic in Iran and Somalia where more than 50 journalists fled each country, as well as in Sri Lanka with the departure of 29. Repressive regimes understand that by "pushing journalists into exile" they can reduce pluralistic views and criticism of government policies, says RSF.

The National Union of Somali Journalists' (NUSOJ) details a harrowing year in its year-end report, "War on Journalism in Somalia: Death, Displacement and Desolation." Seven out of the nine journalists killed in 2009 were murdered in Mogadishu. The report adds that many of the killers are known, but a culture of impunity with no law and order has exacerbated the crisis against the media.
The report documents 9 media deaths, 12 wounded journalists, arrests of 15 media workers, raids on media outlets and death threats forcing numerous journalists to flee the country. Independent, credible journalists must choose between a life in exile or risking death in order to do their job.

According to RSF, at least 167 journalists were in prison worldwide at the end of 2009. Eritrea has the highest number of journalists behind bars in Africa, with 32 imprisoned. At least one journalist is assaulted or arrested every day in the Middle East. Physical assaults and threats have gone up by a third worldwide. The Americas had the highest number of assaults and threats. In Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal also recorded high numbers of violations. Kidnappings have increased, especially in Afghanistan, Somalia and Mexico. In addition, censorship rose with close to 570 cases of newspapers, radio or TV stations shut down worldwide.

Dissent is being increasingly expressed online and the Internet has become a powerful tool for democracy campaigns in several countries, reports RSF. As a result, blocking websites and online surveillance is on the rise, with China, Iran, Tunisia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Uzbekistan named some of the worst offenders. RSF reports more than 100 bloggers and cyber-dissidents imprisoned worldwide for posting their opinions online. Two Azerbaijani bloggers were thrown into jail for making a video mocking the political elite. The number of countries affected by online censorship has doubled, says RSF.

The Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) released a year-end regional update, documenting repression of Internet freedom in 20 Arab countries. The report, "One Social Network, With a Rebellious Message" details how governments block and censor the Internet, and curb dissent by kidnapping, arresting and torturing online critics. But the report also identifies the Internet as an unstoppable tool to combat repression. It examines how blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are used to fight for free expression and expose corruption in the Arab world.

In the Arab region, there are 58 million Internet users, 150,000 active blogs and 12 million Facebook users, according to ANHRI. Egypt has 15 million Internet users and is also the most repressive of Internet activists. Saudi Arabia and Tunisia rank as the most oppressive Internet monitors.

Elsewhere in the world, ARTICLE 19's year-end report says freedom of expression is in "retreat" in Europe. In Italy, 10 journalists are under police protection for reporting on the mafia. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi publicly stated that he would "strangle" anyone reporting on the mafia because it made Italy look bad. In Spain, journalists were attacked by Basque militants. In Finland, a journalist was ordered by police to stop covering a demonstration, violently removed from the protest and detained for 18 hours. The report includes examples of the chilling effect of criminal defamation laws on free expression, the impact of anti-terrorism laws on free speech, and the violation of journalists' rights to protect their sources.

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