When a deadline becomes death

Issue 

By David Robie

Romeo Legaspi, an outspoken columnist and publisher of the Voice of Zambales, was last seen by his family on January 11, 1993. After the Filipino journalist vanished, police showed his family photographs of a charred corpse. It was, they hinted, the remains of Legaspi. His "crime"? He had exposed police corruption in his newspaper.

Legaspi had been charged with criminal libel for a column he wrote about police corruption in the central Luzon province of Zambales. He had filed a counter lawsuit. And then he disappeared.

His case reminds me of an assignment I had six years ago to interview a Filipino journalist at Bacolod on the island of Negros who was known for his expos‚s. He was sent a coffin for Christmas with a bullet and his photo inside. Would-be assassins also took pot shots at him — but he has survived.

In Algiers, Tahar Djaout, editor-in-chief of the weekly cultural publication Rupturers, was shot outside his home by Muslim fundamentalists on May 26, 1993. Winner of the prestigious Prix M‚diterrann‚e in 1991 for his novel Vigils, Djaout had received several death threats. He was the first of nine journalists to be murdered by religious extremists last year.

In South Africa, Calvin Thusago, a black reporter for the South African Broadcasting Corporation, was killed in Sharpeville on April 23 by a mob of 30 youths who attacked his car.

In Bosnia, Karmela Sojanovic was the first of nine journalists killed during the year. A reporter for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, she was shot in her home by a sniper on January 10.

These names are just a handful from among at least 56 journalists killed in the line of duty in 1993 — 16 more deaths are still under investigation. Their deaths have been chronicled in the latest Attacks on the Press, a worldwide annual survey published by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Most victims were local nationals working for local and international news media. Often the reporters were picked out for assassination by ethnic or religious fanatics.

The Pacific region gets its share of mentions in Attacks on the Press — even though they don't really rank among the "heavy" trouble spots of the world.

In spite of the Bougainville conflict, Papua New Guinea escaped being listed this year. But Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Western Samoa all had black marks.

At a glance:

  • Fiji: In spite of a perceptible increase in press freedom with the lifting of visa restrictions on foreign journalists, ethnic and cultural guidelines continued to play a role in shaping Fiji's press laws. On July 29, the Fiji government "announced media restrictions on coverage of racially inflammatory speeches or culturally sensitive information as well as parliamentary speeches deemed libellous".

The government "also said television coverage must give priority to important ministerial statements. The government had stopped coverage of Parliament the previous month until guidelines were created."

The Daily Post faced censorship when the government-owned Fiji Post and Telecommunications Corporation banned advertising in the paper because of an expos‚ about company operations.

  • Solomon Islands: The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation was also censored when then Prime Minister Solomon Mamaloni banned it from broadcasting any news about the Bougainville conflict on the grounds that it was "likely to contravene the principles of the Public Security and Official Secrets Acts".

  • Tonga: 'Akilisi Pohiva, editor and publisher of Kele'a and a member of parliament, continued to fight government gags and libel suits which during the year totalled nearly K40,000 in damages. Pohiva has championed press freedom and other democratic reforms for more than a decade.

  • Western Samoa: The government introduced new legislation, an amended Newspapers and Printers Act, requiring disclosure of sources in defamation cases. The penalty for breaching the law is a fine of up to K1400 or three months in prison. A new defamation act was also passed later in the month banning the publishing of the defamatory statements made in court about a third party.

  • Australia: three journalists were held in contempt of court in separate cases for refusing to divulge their sources. Their cases were cited in Attacks.

Christopher Nicholls of the ABC was given a four-month jail sentence, the longest ever handed down in Australia for protecting a source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance protested over Nicholls' sentence and called for a shield law that would override common law and "protect journalists who are under an ethical obligation not to reveal confidential sources".

In one of the other cases, New Zealander David Hellaby of the Adelaide Advertiser was fined for contempt of court after he refused to disclose a source in articles alleging criminal activity in a bank.

Deborah Cornwall of the Sydney Morning Herald was sentenced to two months' jail for refusing to disclose a source over an article about police corruption. The Supreme Court later reduced her sentence to 90 hours of community service.

One important example of Pacific censorship or harassment overlooked in Attacks on the Press was the furore over a provocative cartoon in the Cook Islands News. Commenting on a parliamentary order to outspoken MP Norman George to apologise or be suspended after he berated the speaker in a robust manner last October, the cartoon became the target of the parliamentary privileges committee.

The paper's publisher, editor and journalist-cartoonist were summoned for hearings over three days and ordered to apologise.

In Attacks on the Press, at least 126 journalists were reported as being imprisoned worldwide at the end of last March — the largest number of jailings ever recorded and an increase by more than a third over the previous report.

Governments jailed these journalists under charges such as "separatist propaganda", "treason", "counter-revolutionary activities" or "undermining national security". Sometimes there were no charges at all.

There are 53 prisoners in the Middle East — more than any other region in the world.

In Asia there are a further 43 in jail. Fifteen are in prison in Africa, and eight in Europe and the former Soviet Union. Two journalists are imprisoned in Latin America.

Despite China's highly publicised release of six journalists, 22 journalists remain in prison. Six were released last year as part of Beijing's major bid to host the Olympics in the year 2000. Less well known is the fact that three more journalists were arrested in China last year. Tiny Kuwait, with a population one-thousandth that of China, also has 22 imprisoned journalists.

Eighteen of the jailed journalists in Kuwait were sentenced to long terms after "unfair trials, where the defendants were denied due process". Some of them had been forced at gunpoint to work for Saddam Hussein's propaganda sheets during the Iraqi occupation.

Nine Vietnamese journalists were convicted because of their work on the pro-democracy newsletter Freedom Forum.

[David Robie is an author and lecturer in journalism at the South Pacific Centre for Communication and Information in Development, University of Papua New Guinea.]