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Panpa Bulletin : September 2006
September 2006 PANPA BULLETIN | 25 Reporters without borders Press freedom can only ever be an ideal while there are regulations controlling the media. Most PANPA member organi- sations operate in democracies where the principle of press free- dom has some degree of political currency and status. Journalists are rarely murdered, imprisoned or tortured in this part of the world. Nevertheless, there are regula- tions and censorship in countries like Australia and New Zealand we would rather not have and newspapers are quite justified in lobbying, protesting and editori- alising against them. I recently had the honour of be- ing appointed correspondent for Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), the Paris-based international or- ganisation which has been work- ing for the past 21 years to high- light breaches of press freedom throughout the world. The strange thing about the role is that, despite being corre- spondent, I hope my reports from Australia will not be too frequent because the very fact of me filing them will mean there has been some infringement of press free- dom in this part of the world. The sad reality is that there have been all too many victories for censorship over recent months: journalists fined and threatened with jail; control orders in the cause of national security; new sedition laws; the development of a right to privacy at the ex- pense of press freedom; FOI ma- nipulation by government and proposals for many more regula- tions which have thankfully been short-circuited. Yet, despite all these develop- ments, a quick visit to the RSF website (www.rsf.org) reveals jour- nalists in Australia, New Zealand and much of the Pacific enjoy far greater freedom than their coll- eagues in some other parts of the world. The RSF site chronicles almost daily incidents of journalists be- ing murdered, tortured or jailed for their work by governments and organised crime syndicates whose motto is to either shoot or gag the messenger. It features a chilling barom- eter of attacks on press freedom throughout the world this year. In mid-August it read: 42 journalists killed, 16 media assistants killed, 132 journalists imprisoned, three media assistants imprisoned and 57 cyberdissidents imprisoned. Links take you to the stories behind the individuals involved, which is a tale of world trouble spots, corrupt governments and criminal intimidation. The worst countries were: Iraq, where 18 journalists had been killed by mid-August; China, where 32 journalists had been imprisoned and Cuba, where 24 were in jail. RSF has released an annual world press freedom index for each of the past three years, rank- ing countries by asking its partner organisations to answer 52 ques- tions to indicate the state of press freedom in 167 countries. Those contributing to the in- dex include 14 freedom of ex- pression organisations in five continents, 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists. New Zealand (ninth) was the only non-European country to make the top 10, while Australia was ranked at just 31 and the United States 44. Other Pacific nations included Fiji (60) and Tonga (63). The organisation's main activity is in issuing statements and protest letters to put pressure on govern- ments showing disrespect for press freedom and raising media and public awareness about the plight of journalists and media in some parts of the world.Last year RSF issued nearly 1,000 state- ments and protest letters. It has quite a meticulous system of veri- fication of press freedom viola- tions before it sends its letters, is- sues its reports and disseminates its media releases. Some cases deserve an onsite investigation, where RSF sends in representa- tives to interview the families and lawyers of journalists who have been jailed, followed by meetings with government representa- tives in the country. They brief the local media on the situation and call for the release of the im- prisoned reporter. Last year RSF conducted 15 of these investiga- tions in countries including Haiti, Mexico, Philippines, Mauritania and Rwanda. The organisation also provides direct financial aid to the families of jailed journal- ists so they can get legal assist- ance and pay medical expenses. They sponsored 100 of these fin- ancial aid packages in 2005. RSF is not without its critics. Questions have been raised about its funding, 27 per cent of which comes from private donors. Most concern has surrounded its funding by two US-based pri- vate foundations, the Centre for a Free Cuba and the National Endowment for Democracy. Despite this criticism, RSF is widely perceived as an independ- ent and non-aligned organisa- tion with the interests of free and open media expression at heart. Most of its income is self-gener- ated through a combination of member dues and donations and publication sales. It also receives French government grants. The group operates an active 'refugees desk' designed to help journalists who have fled their home countries. The office helps these reporters navigate the diff- iculties of applying for political asylum. It helped 70 such cases in 2005 after receiving 131 requests for asylum.The journalists came from 43 countries and sought exile in a range of countries including Australia. Thirty-seven of them were granted refugee status. The office is supported by an- other initiative which has been operating for four years -- the Journalist's House (La Maison des journalistes - MDJ). It accom- modates about 15 journalists at a time. In 2005, 31 of the 70 report- ers sponsored by the refugees' desk stayed there for six months while they awaited their refugee applications to be processed. As RSF correspondent I wel- come any information about breaches of press freedom in this region, so please email me at email@example.com if you hear of any infringement -- physical or legal, actual or per- ceived, current or proposed. Absolute press freedom may be a lofty ideal, but it is an ongo- ing battle to at least preserve the standard we have today. Who knows? Perhaps we may even im- prove it. Professor Mark Pearson is the Head of Journalism, Director, Centre for New Media Research and Education, at Bond University. The RSF site chronicles almost daily incidents of journalists being murdered, tortured or jailed for their work by governments and organised crime syndicates whose motto is to either shoot or gag the messenger MEDIA MATTERS MARK PEARSON Freedom of the press is something Australia takes for granted but not so the rest of the world writes Mark Pearson
November December 2006