‘Online Info Is Easy To Choke’

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based non-profit founded in 1981, promotes press freedom and defends journalists’ rights, sends protest letters, press releases and diplomatic representatives, meets journalists, issues reports and surveys, lobbies international organisations and provides financial assistance to journalists in trouble. On his first visit to India to ascertain local media concerns and consider expanding activities here, CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon in a conversation about the deteriorating state of press freedoms everywhere. Excerpts:

The CPJ protects press freedom. How?

We’re not lawyers or bodyguards, but like journalists covering a huge story. We do case-driven research, without being a research body. Journalists and others contact us when in trouble. We report on attacks and abuses on them, without taking a stand. We also believe journalists shouldn’t be jailed for libel. Sued, sure.

We issue press releases raising alarms when we come across stories of journalists facing problems and attend trials across the globe, to remind the victim and the judge that the world is watching. For example, Maziar Bahari of Newsweek was jailed in Iran during the election crackdown and our campaign secured his release.

What’s common to all the breaches in global press freedom?

Information is a threat, and governments seek to control it. Iran had a fairly vibrant media and in the [last] elections, the press reported how people were being shot and abused. The regime shut down the information flow. People said technology would prevent such a clampdown — they were wrong! In China, the online culture is threatened by censorship, filtering, intimidation. Countries to watch out for are Mexico, Cuba, Burma, and North Korea.

What about the spike in violence against journalists?

One place not in the spotlight is Sri Lanka. There is systemic violence there. It may not be the first place you think of, but it’s dramatic — with murders, jailings, exiles.

Do non-political press face danger?

There’s plenty of volatility when reporting on sporting events, gambling, religious sensibilities. People get really worked up about cartoons all the time.

Why is your sense of alarm rising?

The number of journalists killed is growing. The Iraq conflict has been the deadliest ever, with 150 media people killed since 2003. Killers are seldom brought to justice in Russia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mexico, etc. There seem to be two reasons — journalists are no longer perceived as neutral. Also, the media has itself been struggling economically, with new technologies changing how reporting is done.

For the first time, most journalists in jail are freelancers and online journalists, with no institutional support. All information is now online, so it’s also a [potential] point for choking dissent.

What about the Indian situation?

I’m starting to realise how the big cities are different from the rural areas — there’re two realities at work here.

What areas are you focussing on now?

We’re trying to see how new infrastructure is affecting communication and its implications on press freedom. The Internet needs to be free: we can’t take it for granted. We can’t only depend on technology innovations. Secondly, we need a new strategy to combat violence. 2009 was the deadliest ever for journalists, after the Maguindanao massacre in the Philippines. 85-95 percent of perpetrators get away, and this hasn’t decreased.

Published here