Horror start to new year for media safety

THE new year has had one of its bloodiest beginnings ever for the world’s news media, prompting the International News Safety Institute (INSI) to appeal for respect of the independence and safety of journalists in conflict-stricken regions.

The appeal follows the announcement last week that 109 journalists and support workers were killed last year.

Warfare and other unrest claimed the lives of five journalists in the first eight days of 2009, the worst start to a new year since INSI began keeping records in 2003.

There was significant evidence of journalists being targeted to silence their work.

“This is a dismaying start to the new year,” said INSI director Rodney Pinder. “The deliberate targeting of journalists in war or peacetime is a crime and the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

“Free societies cannot exist without press freedom and there is no press freedom where journalists are being killed because of their work.”

The first victim, a Somali radio reporter, fell on 1 January. Radio Shabelle correspondent Hassan Mayow Hassan was shot by a member of a pro-government militia in Afgooye, 30km south of Mogadishu.

Hassan was with other journalists covering clashes between Islamist militants and armed groups that support the federal transitional government. When Hassan identified himself as a journalist a militant shot him twice in the head.

The most recent victim, on 8 January, was Sri Lankan journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor in chief of the Sunday Leader and one of South Asia’s most prominent press freedom campaigners.

Gunmen ambushed his car as he drove to work, used crowbars to smash the windows and opened fire at close range.

Wickramatunga was the 16th member of the news media slain in Sri Lanka over the past three years as war rages between the government an the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

On 4 January, a suicide bomber in Pakistan killed at least seven people, including two journalists, Mohammad Imran and Tahir Awan of local dailies Eitedal and Apna Akhbar. The bomber struck when police, observed by journalists, were examining evidence of an earlier small explosion.

Two days later, a Palestinian cameraman, Basel Faraj, died of his wounds after being hit in an Israeli air strike in Gaza. Faraj, who worked for the Algerian TV network ENTV and the Palestine Broadcast Production Company, was filming with two reporters and another cameraman who were wounded.

The Palestine Journalists Syndicate (PJS) says Israeli forces have targeted vehicles and journalists clearly identified as such with “Press” or “TV” markings.

Two leading journalist support groups, The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have accused the Israeli military of targeting Palestinian news media in the Gaza Strip while maintaining a ban on foreign journalists from entering the territory.

The CPJ, quoting regional news agencies, said Israeli forces on Monday fired two missiles into the offices of the Hamas-affiliated Al-Risala news weekly and a few minutes later bombed al-Rantisi printers, a commercial firm which publishes Al-Risala.

The IFJ said each day brought “more cynical violations of press freedom and the rights of journalists trying desperately to cover events unfolding in Gaza”.

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