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The 10 worst places to be a journalist

Journalists don't like talking about themselves -- and for good reason. Normally we're more boring than the stories we cover, which is just the way it should be.

But sometimes reporters themselves are the story, as evidenced by the publication of a sobering list: the World's 10 Worst Places to Be a Journalist.

The list, published by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) to mark World Press Freedom Day, is compelling not just for what it says about the courage of individual reporters in tough places.

But also for what it says about the job itself.

Journalists are like the proverbial coal-mine canaries. They are the early indicators of poison in the air -- in this case alerting us to the presence of graver problems of political and social breakdown around the world.

Just naming the "Ten Worst" underlines the point. Iraq tops the list; then Cuba, Zimbabwe, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, China, Eritrea, Haiti, the West Bank and Gaza, and Russia.

Some of the names are not surprising, but others might give you a moment's thought.

And that's the real point of this travelogue of nightmares: There's a lot more to worry about in the world than what makes the front-page headlines.

Iraq is easily the most dangerous place to be a journalist today. Some 25 reporters have been killed in hostile action since March 2003; another eight have been abducted (and released).

Killing and kidnapping are always an issue in war zones, so this may not be "news." But it's important to note that the chaos of Iraq's guerilla warfare has made it awesomely difficult for both Arab and Western journalists to report the story.

Gunfire isn't the only impediment to professional reporting. In Cuba, 29 journalists are still languishing in foul-smelling jail cells, some of them in solitary confinement, more than a year after Fidel Castro cracked down on "dissidents."

In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe has found an even more effective way of preventing his compatriots from learning the truth about his regime. His government-run Media and Information Commission forces journalists and media outlets to get "licenses" to report the news or face criminal prosecution, which has already resulted in the closure of the country's most popular newspaper, the independent Daily News.

You may not be surprised at Cuba or Zimbabwe, but how about Turkmenistan? The Central Asian country (and former Soviet republic) is often lost in the news, except as a new staging point for U.S. troops in the Middle East and South Asia.

There are no Turkmen reporters raising awkward questions, however, because "President-For-Life" Saparmurat Niyazov's officials vet all news and broadcast reports. The one source of independent reporting is Radio Free Europe, but the organization's stringers in Turkmenistan regularly face Soviet-style harassment and arrest.

In Bangladesh, the CPJ notes that journalists are the most visible victims of a "climate of fear" fueled by that country's political instability. Several prominent journalists were killed after writing about corruption, and other reporters "routinely face threats, harassment and often brutally violent physical attacks," says the CPJ.

China has never been media-friendly, but its economic opening to the world has been accompanied by an upsurge in censorship. Three editors were jailed this year after reporting on a revival of the SARS epidemic, bringing to 41 the total number of imprisoned journalists and making that country, according to the CPJ "the world's leading jailer of journalists for the fifth year in a row."

In Eritrea and Haiti, the story is similarly depressing. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki has banned privately owned newspapers and thrown journalists who "endanger national unity" into jail. And the ouster of Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February has only increased officials' tendency to look the other way at press harassment.

In the West Bank and Gaza, journalists face twin threats from the Israeli army and from Palestinian militia groups. In both cases, violence and official harassment have crippled reporters' ability to cover the news.

And last, but not least, there is Russia, where more sophisticated financial and regulatory tools now do the muzzling that had been applied more crudely by the old KGB.

If this list tells us more about the state of the world than we might want to know, it also reminds us why independent journalism is still the key to real democracy.

We may not always like what reporters tell us, but in these countries -- and many others -- silence speaks louder than words.

Stephen Handelman, a frequent commentator on crime and terrorism for publications including The New York Times and The Toronto Star, is the author of Comrade Criminal: Russia's New Mafiya.

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