It’s been a rough year for the press.
Newspapers have closed and news staffs have been trimmed in this country and abroad as the worldwide recession and a changing business model have taken a toll unseen in previous years.
But, that toll pales in comparison to another toll that the World Association of Newspapers keeps track of on an annual basis — the number of reporters and photographers who have been killed in the line of duty or jailed by world governments.
In preparation for World Press Freedom Day, which will be observed May 3 this year, the newspaper association has compiled somber figures for 2008.
Seventy journalists were killed the past year, although killed might be too subtle a word. You can insert murder in most cases.
The rate is a bit higher than normal. In the past decade, there have been slightly more than 400 killings reported for a 40-journalist-a-year average.
Nearly half the 2008 killings — 31 — occurred in Asia where the reporting on corruption often carries a high penalty. India and Pakistan registered seven deaths apiece.
Fifteen deaths were recorded in the Middle East; all but one of those was on Iraqi soil.
Africa, which tends to lead the world each year in the number of reporters arrested, recorded four deaths in 2008, a low rate when compared to other regions of the world. We’re not sure what the more-in-jail, fewer-in-a-grave trend says about the continent.
Mexico alone beat all of Africa in 2008 with five deaths — an indication that the investigation of organized crime and the drug wars comes with a high price. The rest of the Americas recorded six journalist killings. None were in the United States.
The World Association of Newspapers recorded 673 arrests worldwide in 2008.
Trailing Africa’s 263 were the Middle East with 137, the Americas with 127, Europe with 86 and Asia with 60.
Notice the trend line again. Asia was the reverse of Africa. It led the world in deaths, but finished last in arrests.
As of Dec. 1, there were 125 journalists in prison, according to the newspaper alliance.
China, with 28 journalists in jail, was king, followed closely by Cuba’s 21, which speaks volumes about the natural conflict between a free press and communist governments.
The World Association of Newspapers says it gathers the numbers each year “to turn the spotlight on repressive governments which deny their people this freedom.”
So let us direct our spotlight 180 miles south to Havana. If you want to help us observe World Press Freedom Day, attach your name to the following letter, which was compiled by the World Association of Newspapers. Address it to “His Excellency President Raul Castro, Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana, Cuba” and drop it in the mail before May 3.
The protest letter goes like this:
I am writing on the occasion of May 3, World Press Freedom Day, to call for the release of all journalists held in jail in Cuba.
At least 22 journalists are currently in prison, more than 20 of whom were arrested in March 2003 during the “Primavera Negra” (Black Spring) crackdown on reporters and others perceived to be critics of the government. Most were given summary trials, convicted on charges of undermining the state and given long prison sentences.
Among those arrested was Hector Maseda, a journalist with the independent news agency Trabajo Decoro Group, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Omar Rodriguez Saludes, head of the independent news agency Nueva Prensa Cubana, received the longest sentence of any of those arrested: 27 years.
Although a small number of those detained in 2003 have since been released, two more journalists have been put behind bars. Oscar Mario González, a journalist with the Grupo de Trabajo Decoro, was jailed on July 22, 2005, and Albert Santiago Du Bouchet Hernández, director of the Havana Press news agency, was jailed on Aug. 6, 2005.
The continued imprisonment of these journalists constitutes a deep blemish on the international standing of Cuba, which can only be erased by their release.
I respectfully remind you that the incarceration of these journalists constitutes a clear breach of their right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by numerous international conventions, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Furthermore, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights considers that “detention, as punishment for the peaceful expression of an opinion, is one of the most reprehensible ways to enjoin silence and, as a consequence, a grave violation of human rights.”
I respectfully call on you to make a break with history and to ensure that all journalists are immediately released from prison and all charges against them dropped. To do so would be recognized by all international observers as an act of justice and strength by your government.