How Do We Deal With Those Pesky Journalists!

Instead of offering readers yet another depressing article on our current international economic crisis, I thought I might call attention to a different matter, equally disturbing (at least to me), but one that garners surprisingly less attention in the world’s media.

By Paul Kennedy

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Published: Wed 25 Mar 2009, 11:51 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

It is about the continuing, relentless campaigns in so many parts of our planet to intimidate, imprison and assault those courageous individuals who report crimes, brutalities and corruption in newspapers and on the radio and television.

The source of what follows is the latest edition of that wonderful publication “Attacks on the Press,” produced each year by the fiercely independent and blunt-minded Committee to Protect Journalists (

It is difficult to think of a similar compendium of abuses against the freedom of expression that is so comprehensive, so important and yet at the same time so utterly disgusting in its contents. Put simply, most governments do not like pesky reporters and do their best to suppress their news.

In fact, on reaching the end of this work, I began to wonder whether there remained any countries where governments and other powerful forces (drug cartels, religious fanatics) did not seek to stomp on their critics in the media.

The encouraging answer to that question is, thank Heavens, “Yes!” But the list is a short one: those liberal Australians and New Zealanders; the right-minded Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans and Belgians; Spain, Portugal and Greece (what a change from 50 years ago); and most of the sensible Gulf states. I am sure I have missed a couple more, in some West Indian islands and other untroubled patches of the world. It’s definitely a minority group.

By contrast, the tally of countries where journalists, editors and photographers are systematically intimidated — and I would include here imprisonment, torture and execution in some cases — is sickeningly predictable.They range from nasty little regimes like Burma’s, whose jails seem crammed full of journalists, to Cuba’s, where most detainees are charged with acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” a legal count so absurdly general that by its very nature it confirms the paranoia of the decaying Castro dictatorship.

Naturally, they also include much larger authoritarian states like the People’s Republic of China, which boasts the longest-serving imprisoned journalist in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ entire record, Lin Youping, and Russia, where the Muscovite Mafiosi specialise in everything from disruptive “office searches” of liberal newspapers to unsolved contract killings of those who have the guts to speak out against Putin’s growing domestic despotism.

Top of the list — or do I mean bottom of the pile? — is Robert Mugabe’s awful Zimbabwean kleptocracy, where abuses of basic human rights have become the order of the day. Just recently, according to “Attacks on the Press,” a foreign correspondent was charged with the crime of “committing journalism.” Just how unpatriotic can a reporter get?

It is to the credit of this New York-based organisation that it does not spare the United States government itself (unlike those State Department reports on everybody else’s human-rights abuses).

Indeed, the first sentence of the report’s entry upon the US record bluntly states that “government actions against journalists abroad continue to sully the nation’s image,” and then goes on to detail the detention for many months without charge of journalists, including those employed by Reuters, the Associated Press and the Canadian Broadcasting Association.

The Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein was held for two years without being charged by the US authorities. One doubts that the troops who seized him had known that he had shared the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography. Unsurprisingly, Hussein has walked away from all this with dignity, and international prizes for his integrity and courage; his captors have walked away with discredit. And that account, while sobering, may be the best news of all that can be drawn from this year’s edition of “Attacks On The Press.”

The fact that an independent organisation like the CPJ — supported, incidentally, by the whole spectrum of the media, from left to right — is willing to excoriate its own government (or, rather, the previous one) for imprisoning journalists and press photographers without charge is a healthy affirmation of the belief that bullying and intimidation will not, and should not, be allowed to prevail.For a while, yes, this brutality will continue — in Sudan, Venezuela, Burma and other God-forsaken places, where frightened regimes will continue to harass foreign journalists and, even more, to assault hated domestic dissidents because they so clearly expose their awful misdeeds.

All this was foreseen, readers will recall, in the closing pages of George Orwell’s gloomy classic “1984,” where his anti-hero Winston had the job of constantly manipulating press reports (and constantly changing History); where the truth was whatever the authoritarian regime declared it to be, even when patently absurd; and where the pessimistic, terminally ill Orwell feared a future in which tyrants would stomp their jackboots upon critics’ faces — forever.

Part of this remarkable collection of CPJ stories suggests just such a lousy future for humankind. But the larger lesson points in the opposite direction: that the individual spirit, even if languishing for years in a Burmese or Cuban prison, refuses to be subdued; that their families and friends never give up hope; and that there exists a wonderful network of concerned parties — not just the CPJ, but Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a myriad others — to give hope that these abuses will be denounced for what they are.

This will not be a pushover. Nasty, abusive regimes are, by self-definition, rough and violent. They will not be pushed and jeered off the world’s stage without fighting back. But that they, sometime in the early decades of the 21st century, will end in the dustbin of History seems more than likely. And whoever reads “Attacks on the Press” will see why that is so.

Paul Kennedy is the J. Richardson Professor of History and the director of International Security Studies at Yale University. He is currently writing a history of the Second World War

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