129 journalists, 7 media assistants and 63 cyberdissidents jailed, 8 journalists killed since the begenning of the year.

Reporters Without Borders today accused public officials around the world of “impotence, cowardice and duplicity” in defending freedom of expression.

“The spinelessness of some Western countries and major international bodies is harming press freedom,” secretary-general Robert Ménard said in the organisation’s annual press freedom report, out today (13 February) and available at http://www.rsf.org. “The lack of determination by democratic countries in defending the values they supposedly stand for is alarming.”

He charged that the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had caved in to pressure from countries such as Iran and Uzbekistan and expressed concern at the softness of the European Union towards dictators who did not flinch at the threat of European sanctions.

The report’s introduction listed problems expected in the coming year, especially physical attacks on journalists during key elections in Pakistan (18 February), Russia (2 March), Iran (14 March) and Zimbabwe (29 March).

The worldwide press freedom organisation voiced concern about the safety of journalists covering fighting in Sri Lanka, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Niger, Chad and especially Iraq, where it said “journalists continue to be buried almost every week.”

It also protested against censorship of new media (mobile phones transmitting photos and film and video-sharing and social networking websites) and highlighted media repression in China in the run-up to the Olympic Games there this summer.

“Nobody apart from the International Olympic Committee seems to believe the government will make a significant human rights concession before the Games start,” it said. “Every time a journalist or blogger is released, another goes into prison. (…) China’s dissidents will probably be having a hard time this summer.”

The report includes surveys of press freedom in every region of the world over the past year and chapters on 98 countries, including European Union members and the United States.

A press conference to introduce the report will be held in Washington on 13 February in the presence of journalists from Iraq, China, Eritrea and Pakistan. Another will be held in Berlin with Russian and Zimbabwean journalists.

Spain annual reporter

The Catalan regional assembly’s passing of a broadcasting law that includes threats to press freedom is a call for vigilance and a warning that membership of the European Union does not guarantee protection against the temptation to obstruct journalists. The threats to the media by the ETA still oblige several of them to work under protection.

The Catalan assembly passed a law on 29 December 2005 giving the regional broadcasting authority (CAC) undue quasi-legal powers (similar to those in Navarre and Andalucia) to regulate media content. It provides for heavy fines (between €90,000 and €300,000) and cancellation of operating licences (and thus closure of the media-outlet). Media must also comply with “the principle of truthful and verified news” and must not “obstruct government surveillance activity.” These provisions contravene the much more liberal European Union press freedom laws.

Two major press freedom cases advanced in 2006. The seven-year prison sentence imposed in 2005 on Tayssir Allouni, of the pan-Arab satellite TV network Al-Jazeera, was confirmed by an appeal court on 1 June. He had been convicted on 26 September 2005 of “collaboration” with Al-Qaeda as part of a trial of 24 people accused of involvement in terrorist activities in Spain. The prosecution mentioned an interview he had had with Osama bin Laden in October 2001 when he was Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Kabul. He also pointed to the many contacts he had with Islamic fundamentalists. Allouni was transferred to house arrest for humanitarian reasons on 3 October 2006 and was able to return to his family in Granada. Al-Jazeera announced on 14 July it was opening a bureau in Spain.

The supreme court on 5 December ordered the reopening of the enquiry into the death of Spanish cameraman José Couso in Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel after US army shelling on 8 April 2003. The enquiry had been formally closed on 10 March but the supreme court said Spanish courts were competent to handle the case, which could affect relations between the US and Spain. This means Spain could seek extradition of three US soldiers responsible for the shelling.

The state prosecutor said on 14 December that legal action against the Basque-language newspaper Egunkaria by a judge was unjustified because he had not proved the paper was an arm of the pro-independence ETA. The paper faces another legal actions.

Journalists who mention Basque terrorism and the ETA – put in the list of predators of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders – find it difficult to do their job. Despite the permanent ceasefire declared by the ETA on 22 March, several dozen journalists still have to work with protection because of ETA threats.



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