Journalists honor their fallen colleagues

PARIS (AP) – There was no freedom for Shi Tao and Florence Aubenas on World Press Freedom Day, or for Dawit Isaak, or for Marie-Jeanne Ion, or for Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso.

But they were remembered Tuesday. Even in press-hostile countries, journalists held marches and sit-ins to demand an end to the threats media workers face: killings, prison, kidnapping, government censorship and other abuses.

The list of reporters in jail, held hostage or killed on the job was particularly long this year – in part because of the violence in Iraq. The number of dead is higher than it has been in a decade.

“We will not be cowed. We will not be silenced,” the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines vowed in a statement marking the 15th annual worldwide observance. It said 23 journalists were killed there in the past three years, with a total of 66 murdered since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in 1986.

In Pakistan, where violence against reporters is common, baton-swinging police arrested 30 journalists who marked the day by protesting outside parliament in the capital Islamabad, witnesses said. They were later released.

Chanting, “Free detained journalists. Reinstate press freedoms,” 1,500 reporters marched through the capital of Nepal. Dozens of reporters have been arrested since King Gyanendra seized power in February, and 12 remain in jail.

Scores of police watched the protest in Katmandu but did not intervene. Journalists are barred from criticizing the king, his government and the security forces. Independent radio stations have been banned from broadcasting any news.

Kenyan first lady Lucy Kibaki and her security detail showed scant regard for the global day of campaigning, storming the Nairobi office of Kenya’s largest newspaper early Tuesday, triggering a confrontation where she allegedly slapped a television cameraman and demanded the arrest of another reporter and his editor, witnesses said.

President Mwai Kibaki’s wife also seized notebooks, tape recorders and cameras of reporters covering her protest at The Daily Nation’s offices, said Wangethi Mwangi, the newspaper’s editorial director.

“This is one of those coincidences that helps to highlight the difficulties we face all the time,” he said. “This sort of intrusion into our freedoms sends shivers down your spine.”

Government spokesman Alfred Mutua refused to comment on the incident.

The first lady was protesting stories carried in Kenya’s daily papers saying she tried to pull the plug on a party Friday for the outgoing country director for the World Bank, whose residence is next door to the president’s private home. According to the reports, she felt the music was too loud.

Media groups in Africa hoped to use the day to focus attention on restrictive laws, such as Kenya’s criminal libel law, which African leaders use to quash dissent. Most African nations also have so-called “insult laws,” which forbid the media from any reporting that could be considered derogatory to the leadership.

“This has been an extremely bad year for press freedom,” said Robert Menard, president of Reporters Without Borders. “Of course, it’s in Iraq that the majority of journalists are dying. But there [are] also journalists being killed in Peru, Mexico, the Philippines – outside of war zones.”

Fifty-three journalists were killed on the job in 2004, the most in a decade, the Paris-based group said. It said 56 journalists or their assistants have been killed in Iraq since the war began more than two years ago – only seven fewer than during the conflict in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975.

Another 107 journalists were imprisoned as of Jan. 1, the group said. They included Shi, one of 27 held in China, and Alfonso, serving 20 years in prison in Cuba and one of 22 journalists imprisoned there.

In Sweden, under a cold rain and a banner marked “Free Dawit,” journalists and campaigners held a 24-hour vigil in Stockholm and handed out fliers to demand the release of reporter Isaak, a Swede jailed in his native Eritrea since 2001 after he called for press freedom there.

“It’s sad that this is needed,” said Bengt Braun, head of the Swedish Newspaper Publishers’ Association. “But we need to put pressure on these murderer regimes who imprison people for their opinions.”

Other journalists remembered Tuesday are held hostage. They include Aubenas, a French reporter last seen leaving her Baghdad hotel Jan. 5, and Ion, one of three Romanians kidnapped in the Iraqi capital March 28 along with their Iraqi-American translator, Mohammed Monaf.