Beacons Of Freedom Helping Journalists In Countries Where Basic Rights Are Denied

Posted: November 22, 2000

Many years ago, a foreign correspondent friend of mine named Dial Torgersen used to quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's celebrated novel Night Flight to describe the support network among journalists around the world.

Saint-Exupery wasn't writing about journalism, but rather immortalizing the risks taken by early aviation pioneers who flew flimsy mail planes through the darkness over stormy Andean mountains. A flier, he wrote, emerged from "the vastness of the night" to small but welcoming beacons of light emitted on the plains from scattered farmhouses. He wrote that "when he has crossed a dozen storms like lands at war ... to reach at last those lights, one following the other," a pilot could finally feel triumphant.

Dial compared the warmth of those beacons to the moral and physical support offered by his foreign correspondent colleagues. Tragically, he was killed in 1983 in Honduras while covering the Nicaraguan war for the Los Angeles Times.

But his analogy applies as well to the need for Western support for the struggles of gutsy journalists in developing countries, like the four who received International Press Freedom Awards from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) last night.

Each of these four illustrates the amazing courage displayed by journalists who fight to stay independent in states whose rulers feel threatened by honest reporting. Each man's story illustrates the crucial role outside supporters can play in ensuring that such fighters don't disappear without a trace.

One awardee is Modeste Mutinga, publisher of Le Potentiel, the only independent daily newspaper in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly ruled by the monstrous dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and now controlled by the ugly regime of Laurent-Desire Kabila.

Mutinga's paper lambasted Mobutu's corruption, and its offices were bombed in 1992, but life became even more dangerous under Kabila. Mutinga says it would be "too draining" to list all the times he's been arrested or harassed.

In an Internet interview, Mutinga said he takes the risk because he must fight "the misery my people face on a daily basis and the fact that they are completely excluded from the political process." His paper tries to publish political news and human rights information but can't run more than 5,000 copies a day because of economic pressures. Readers pool money, buy one copy and then photocopy more.

Le Potentiel operates on 1960s printing presses and desperately needs computers and software. Here's a worthwhile investment for Western foundations that have helped fund free media in former communist countries.

As for other help, Mutinga says organizations like CPJ "are crucial to our safety" because they make the Congolese authorities aware that someone outside is watching. "I think that helps keep them in check."

Outside eyes and ears are also essential to Steven Gan, who pioneered the use of the Internet to evade Malaysian government press restrictions. Gan had previously been jailed for aggressive reporting, in a system where most major media are state-controlled and practice self-censorship. A year ago, he started an independent Web publication, Malaysiakini, to challenge the existing order.

In a phone interview, Gan said he chose the Internet as a vehicle because Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had pledged "that he would not censor the Net so he could attract high-tech companies to Malaysia." Malaysiakini.com now gets more than 100,000 daily hits, and has become a major news player, though it still has trouble finding experienced journalists who will risk working there, and some of its advertisers have been threatened by "phone calls from the top."

But the more outside notice Malaysiakini gets, the better the chances it won't be shut by the foreign-investment conscious Mahathir. And the more it can serve as a role model for press freedom under semi-authoritarian regimes.

Nowhere has outside support for free media been more crucial than in Serbia and Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Honoree Zeljko Kopanja is the co-founder and editor of Nezavisne Novine, the largest independent daily in the Serb sector of Bosnia, known as Republika Srpska. He lost both legs to a car bomb explosion a year ago, after a publishing a pioneering series about the killings of Bosnian Muslims by Serb authorities during the 1992-95 war. This was the first time a Serb newspaper detailed such atrocities by Serbs.

Kopanja thinks the car-bomb attack was directed from Belgrade, when President Slobodan Milosevic still ran rump Yugoslavia. Independent newspapers, which are trying to help rebuild a democratic Bosnia, were a threat to Milosevic, especially since they could reveal his links to war crimes. Even after Milosevic's political downfall, Kopanja's paper is struggling to survive Bosnia's dire economic conditions.

But Kopanja has been cheered by multiethnic support from independent Croatian and Muslim journalists in Bosnia, as well as U.S. and European help with his treatment. CPJ ensured that he received the best prostheses available so he could continue his work as a journalist.

The fourth CPJ honoree couldn't make it to New York because he is in an Iranian prison. Reformist editor Mashallah Shamsolvaezin was jailed for 30 months on April 10 for allegedly insulting Islamic principles by publishing an article that criticized capital punishment.

He had become the dean of Iran's amazing reformist press, which emerged after the 1997 election of President Muhammad Khatami, and has since been crippled by hard-liners who have shut down one newspaper after another. Shamsolvaezin edited four papers that were successively banned.

Threatened, physically attacked, he persevered, keeping a packed suitcase near his desk in case he was arrested. For journalists like Shamsolvaezin - now confined to Tehran's notorious Evin Prison - it is crucial to know that colleagues around the world stand ready to prod and embarrass the Iranian regime that holds him.

Those small beacons of light can penetrate prison walls.

Trudy Rubin's column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is trubin@phillynews.com

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