They made thrones tremble

Nearly 500 journalists have been murdered in the last 15 years, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), and about 85% of those crimes have gone unpunished. On Tuesday, CPJ honoured five journalists who embody courage in the face of censorship with its 2007 International Press Freedom Awards.

The situation in the countries from which four of the five award winners were chosen (Russia, China, Pakistan and Mexico) exemplifies this ominous trend. There have been deaths, disappearances and arrests of journalists in all four countries and, as unique as each of the award winners’ experiences have been, violent repression is the common thread among them.

“The main problem for journalists in Mexico is the impunity for the killers of journalists,” honoree Adela Navarro Bello, 39, said. “That puts us in a spot. If someone attacks a journalist in Mexico, you know he is not going to be punished.” Bello is the general director of the weekly magazine Zeta in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico. Created in 1980, Zeta is one of the only publications to regularly run investigative articles on organised crime, drug trafficking and corruption in Mexico’s northern states, where self-censorship is rampant. Zeta’s history in covering crime along the US-Mexico border is as inspirational as it is tragic.

The co-founder of the magazine, Héctor Félix Miranda, was killed in 1988, and co-editor Francisco Ortiz Franco was murdered in 2004. In 1997, after an assassination attempt against J Jesús Blancornelas, the founder and then director of Zeta, in which one of his bodyguards was killed, Mexican authorities provided Bello with a bulletproof vest and two bodyguards. But Bello was not fazed. “I don’t let myself think about the aspect of fear. If I do, I will close the paper and go home,” she said.

Across the ocean, in Pakistan, another kind of danger has been brewing. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has been clamping down on journalists critical of his rule, even more so since he imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 5. But for years, journalists like Mazhar Abbas have been defending the people’s right to know. He is the deputy director of ARY One World Television, an Urdu and Hindi-language 24-hour news channel in Pakistan and the secretary-general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists. Abbas refused to give up his profession even after repeated threats to his life and his family.

Dmitry Muratov, who lost three reporters with his Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta, said he had considered shutting down the paper but continued to publish, “Because our million readers share the values of democracy. Real democracy — not its imitation,” he said. Novaya Gazeta is the only truly critical newspaper with national influence in Russia today. But the paper has paid a heavy price, most recently with the life of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The last award winner Gao Qinrong, who completed an eight-year prison sentence in China on trumped-up charges, was not able to attend because the Chinese authorities would not issue him a passport. Gao had reported on corruption in an irrigation project in Shanxi province. Likewise, Tom Brokaw, NBC News anchor, reporter and best-selling author, received CPJ’s Burton Benjamin Memorial Award for lifetime achievement. — IPS