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World Marks Press Freedom Under Shadow of Journalist Deaths

By Charlene Porter | Staff Writer | 03 May 2012
Man speaking to group and standing in front of World Press Freedom Day banner (AP Images)

Despite the murders of fellow scribes, a journalists’ organization in Mogadishu commemorated World Press Freedom Day May 3.

Washington — The murders of two Somali journalists since May 1 are a sober reminder of the dangers of the journalistic craft, as free governments and international organizations recognize World Press Freedom Day May 3.

“The most recent murder, that of Radio Simba's Farhan Jeemis Abdulle, occurred just yesterday [May 2] on the eve of World Press Freedom Day,” said U.S. Special Representative for Somalia James C. Swan in a statement released from the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, emphasizing that five Somali journalists have been killed in 2012, and the terrorist group al-Shabaab is suspected in their deaths.

“Some — like freelance journalist Bashiir Mohamed Salaad, killed by a terrorist attack in Dhusamareb on May 1 while covering a political meeting — died while bravely trying to practice their craft,” said the Swan statement. “Others — like Hassan Osman Abdi, the director of Radio Shabelle — appear to have been targeted specifically because they were journalists.”

Swan quoted a statement from a Somali journalism association that al-Shabaab forcibly took over Radio Markabley in Baardheere town, replacing news broadcasts with propaganda about the group's agenda. He said crimes victimizing journalists and their organizations must be investigated.

“The United States is committed to working with responsible Somali authorities to help bring an end to the culture of impunity and violence that threatens both the lives of Somalis and their universally recognized right to freedom of expression,” the statement said. “There is simply too much at risk not to tackle these threats head-on.”

The Swan statement echoed the tone of President Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day.

“In some cases, it is not just governments threatening the freedom of the press. It is also criminal gangs, terrorists, or political factions,” the May 3 statement said. “No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country."

The president's statement also drew attention to the cases of press abuse in various countries and paid “tribute to those journalists who have sacrificed their lives, freedom or personal well-being in pursuit of truth and justice.”

The State Department marked World Press Freedom Day by highlighting individuals whose experiences demonstrate that press freedom is endangered in various parts of the world on www.humanrights.gov.

The success of online media in the events of 2011’s Arab Awakening is frequently cited as the potential for sudden outbreaks of freedom of the press, but that story too has a counterpoint. The Tunisian government is hosting international World Press Freedom events May 3, the same day television executive Nabil Karoui of Nessma TV was convicted of “disturbing public order” and “threatening public morals” by broadcasting the French movie Persepolis. The animated film contains a briefly seen image of God; many Muslims find depictions of God to be offensive. Karoui’s case was considered a test of how much reform has really occurred in Tunisia, the nation where the region’s uprisings began.

With “disappointment and concern,” Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Esther Brimmer noted the conviction in Tunis where she is leading the U.S. delegation to the Press Freedom Day events. “His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia. I understand that Mr. Karoui has the right to appeal his conviction, and hope that mechanism will result in a clear endorsement of the right to free expression.”

The U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, also issued a statement condemning the decision, making the point that the Tunisian government had previously approved distribution of the film. "His conviction raises serious concerns about tolerance and freedom of expression in the new Tunisia,” Gray said.

World Press Freedom Day was also recognized at a session in Vienna of the Organization for Security and Economic Co-operation in Europe. U.S. envoy Ian Kelly cited governments’ responsibilities to defend press freedom as a fundamental principal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Attacks and murders of journalists go unpunished, and governments are not taking necessary steps to end the climate of impunity for these crimes,” Kelly said. “As we have repeatedly stated, protecting the safety of journalists remains one of our most important and urgent challenges in the OSCE’s Human Dimension. Whenever the flow of news, information and views is restricted, individual citizens suffer. Societies suffer. Economies suffer. Trust between nations suffers, too.”