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Bad news for journalists worldwide

In this photo taken and released by a protester, a local university student, a supporter of the Southern Weekly, raises an edition of the newspaper during a protest outside the Southern Weekly headquarters in Guangzhou, China, Jan. 10. (AP Photo)

“Journalists aren’t the story” is one of the unwritten rules of journalism. So it’s not entirely surprising that one of the bigger journalism stories of this year was widely ignored by the media.

It’s a report from New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, released earlier this month. And it concluded that not only is there a “deteriorating environment” for press freedom – but the number of journos behind bars reached a record high in the past year, mainly because of “terrorism and other anti-state charges” thrown at them by governments using anti-terrorism laws.

The committee said that 232 journalists were jailed for their work in 2012, an increase of 53 since 2011. Seventy journalists also lost their lives in the line of duty in 2012, a 43 per cent increase from 2011.

Large numbers of journalists were detained in Ethiopia, Turkey, Vietnam, Syria and Iran – the latter launching an apparent sweep of media in advance of a contentious election. Restrictive laws silenced dissent in Ecuador, Turkey and Russia. And there were high murder rates and “entrenched impunity” in Pakistan, Somalia and Brazil, not to mention Syria, where journalists are targeted as well as caught in the crossfire of a spiraling civil war.

But in fact, journalists are increasingly fair game since the rise of social media, as militants and repressive governments dispense with the niceties of answering embarrassing questions, and take their rants directly to their audiences through the Internet. They can also hack into journalists electronic equipment, virtually reading – and intercepting -- their thoughts. And they have ways and means of censoring information at the source, as well as tracking those who are criticizing them.

Not that the West should be smug.

In Canada, a damning report from the Centre for Law and Democracy showed that Ottawa’s record for complying with freedom of information laws had skidded to 55th of 93 countries rated. (Former Soviet ally Mongolia did better).

And our neighbours to the south?

The liberal-labelled Obama administration’s National Defense Authorization Act was draconian in its scope – allowing for indefinite detention of U.S. citizens by the military, and the possibility that “journalists, activists and citizens could lose their liberty, potentially forever” if they interview anyone classed as a terrorist by the government. A challenge mounted by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges and others got the law struck down. At least, pending a rapidly-launched government appeal.

Meanwhile, according to media campaigner Josh Stearns of the American advocacy group Free Press, more than 90 journalists were arrested throughout the U.S. while covering Occupy protests and civil unrest from Sept. 2011 to Sept. 2012.

The 21st century journalist’s CV is expanding: degree, work experience, police record.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.



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