International Papers

Beat the Press

Along with a nose for a good story and an elegant turn of phrase, prominent journalists in the Ivory Coast also need a vigilant bodyguard. Honorat Dé Yédagne, the managing director of the company that publishes Abidjan’s leading daily, Fraternité Matin, told France’s Le Monde that hired muscle would “complicate my life, but it’s more prudent.” The state-owned Frat Mat, which was first published the day after the Ivory Coast gained its independence in 1960, has tended to support the government, despite its motto, “Neither partisan nor neutral.” However, after a rebel uprising began in October 2002 (for more background on the dispute, see this BBC backgrounder), rival paper Notre Voie, which is staunchly loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo, launched a campaign against Frat Mat, accusing its editors and reporters of “collusion” with the rebels, “treason,” “inciting civil war,” and “antisocial behavior.” A spate of threatening letters immediately followed. Among Frat Mat’s sins were publishing dispatches from rebel-controlled territory and reprinting correspondence from a rebel commander. As Le Monde observed, “Even though the message was an invitation to stay neutral in the conflict, it was an act of bravery to publish it.”

The Moscow Times reported that, according to one study, Russia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist. The Paris-based press watchdog group Reporters Without Borders bases its rating on the number of journalists killed in the line of duty, and in 2002 Russia “led” the world with four. A report from another press advocacy group fretted about increased censorship and the use of frivolous lawsuits to harass journalists. The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations reported, “The number of criminal cases opened against journalists in three years of Vladimir Putin’s rule is more than the number during the entire 10 years of Boris Yeltsin’s reign.” Newspapers can be closed down by law enforcement agents, who seize computers as collateral against future fines. “Another traditional way of getting at unfavorable media is to unleash health or fire inspectors on them, as in the case of web studio Penza Online, which was shut down last year because the temperature in its offices was 2 degrees below the norm.”

Official intimidation also seems to have been effective in Zimbabwe. According to Britain’s Guardian, the Dec. 30 firing of the crusading editor of Harare’s last independent daily, the Daily News, most likely happened because the paper’s board “feared that the government would refuse to register the paper under the new regulations if Mr. Nyarota remained as editor.”

The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong noted that this week the mainland media was instructed to “speak the truth”—but not if it meant covering protests or other social unrest. Delegates at the Communist Party’s Central Publicity Work Conference were told that the newly elected party leadership could be destabilized if the press discussed labor disputes or reported on rising unemployment or problems arising from “rural reform, natural and human disasters and the arrest of ‘unstable elements.’ “

The Daily Telegraph’s Paris correspondent covered the French president’s annual New Year reception for the press corps, where journalists pounced on the food and champagne “like schoolboys at a cricket tea,” with a combination of astonishment and disdain. Philip Delves Broughton claimed:

To a journalist who has worked in Britain and America, the French press seems astonishingly complacent. Every French journalist I meet rolls his eyes at the venality and ego of the politicians he or she covers, but hardly any of their reservations are reflected in print. The survival of men such as [President Jacques] Chirac, who would have been undone years ago in Britain, owes much to the mainstream media’s reluctance to expose him.