Journalism's Red Cross
Under-staffed and low-profile, the Committee to Protect Journalists rides to the rescue of reporters and editors who run afoul of governments hostile to the press.
By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR senior contributing writer.
A campaign of terror against the media was escalating in Nigeria when Dapo Olorunyomi heeded the advice of colleagues and vanished underground. The defiant editor had survived arrests and torture. Now a "shoot on sight" order, issued by the military, hung over him like a death shroud.
"It was a license to kill me," says Olorunyomi of the events that unfolded in June 1995. "I knew [security police] wouldn't stop."
What Olorunyomi didn't know was that determined forces in the United States were aware of his plight and already were planning a rescue. Instead, the journalist believed he was alone, condemned to die eventually for his "crime" – an unrelenting investigation of Nigeria's corrupt dictatorship.
Today, Olorunyomi credits the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists with being the lifeline that helped him escape thugs from Nigeria's dreaded SSS – State Security Service – who constantly dogged him. "Somehow [CPJ] found me. They initiated contact, secured funds for my escape and arranged for legal documents so I could come to the U.S.," says the exiled editor, who calls himself a "prisoner of conscience."
"Without them, I believe I would be dead or in prison."
üfter his escape in early 1996, Olorunyomi was named International Editor of the Year by the World Press Review and received the Freedom-to-Write Award from PEN Center USA West. The journalist, who is spearheading a campaign to free imprisoned colleagues in his homeland, calls CPJ "a life saver."
What the International Red Cross is to victims of famine and floods, the Committee to Protect Journalists has become to hundreds of reporters and editors operating under siege in the deadliest spots for the media around the globe.
This small band of Americans – there are only 13 full time staffers – has become a main line of defense when a journalist
disappears behind prison walls or is ordered to stand trial for
treason in such remote regions as Tajikistan and Gambia.
Their primary weapons – fax machines, telephones and the Internet – allow them to mobilize loud international outcries that reach the highest seats of power, including the U.S. State Department, American embassies and world bodies like the United Nations, asking them to defend journalists. At times, their influence reaches all the way to the White House.
CPJ scored a coup in October when President Clinton raised press freedom issues with Argentine leaders during a visit to Buenos Aires. At a briefing on that trip, Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry noted that it was the Committee to Protect Journalists that raised "very serious concerns about the degree of harassment and intimidation" encountered by local media.
"We see ourselves filling a gap between local journalists in places like Argentina and the foreign policy community in the U.S.," says CPJ Executive Director Bill Orme.
Operating on the notion that even coldhearted dictators are sensitive to international pressure, especially if it is tied to the threat of losing economic aid, the committee orchestrates outrage over press freedom violations. "We practice a delicate combination of diplomacy and advocacy," says Orme.
CPJ's hallmark is the annual "Attacks on the Press" watchdog report, a meticulous account of the murder, intimidation and imprisonment of journalists in more than 100 countries. The investigations are conducted on-site in some of the riskiest spots in the world.
ýommittee staffers and recruits, including high-profile journalists like Peter Arnett and Walter Cronkite, travel on fact-finding missions to places such as Turkey, Vietnam and Cambodia. Sometimes they cross into danger zones like Tajikistan, which has been one of the world's worst killing fields for journalists, or Cuba, where reporters routinely are arrested (see Free Press, November).
Each year, in honor of World Press Freedom Day, CPJ issues a 10 worst enemies list (see page 37) of world leaders, such as Cuba's Fidel Castro or Indonesia's President Suharto, who have led campaigns to silence journalists.
For some, like Olorunyomi, who are running for their lives, the committee works with human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, to plan rescues and provide safe havens.
As the number of journalists around the world who are intimidated, arrested or killed continues to climb, so does CPJ's workload. "We are a victim of our own success," says Catherine Fitzpatrick, who covers 27 countries in Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet territories. "Once we get on the map in a country like Serbia or Russia, we are deluged with cases."
In the most recent report, "Attacks on the Press in 1996: A Worldwide Survey," a record 185 journalists were in prison in 24 countries; dozens more related tales of intimidation and abuse. Twenty-seven journalists were killed in the line of duty, down from 57 the year before. CPJ reported that Algeria remains the most dangerous country for journalists, with seven assassinations, bringing the toll to 59 since 1993.
So far in 1997, CPJ has confirmed 15 deaths of journalists in connection with their work. "But we know that number will be higher after our investigations are completed," says Orme.
Unlike the Red Cross with its vast resources, CPJ operates on a $1.3 million annual budget that covers everything from rent for the sprawling office on New York City's Seventh Avenue to fact-finding missions and salaries.
Led by Bill Orme, a former Latin American freelance correspondent for the Washington Post and The Economist, the committee is backed by a board of directors that reads like a "Who's Who" of American journalism. With Walter Cronkite as honorary chair, the board's 31 members include Tom Brokaw, Katharine Graham, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Bill Kovach, Gene Roberts, Dan Rather, Bernard Shaw and John Seigenthaler.
Board member Anthony Lewis, a columnist with the New York Times, says he signed on with CPJ when it was founded in 1981 because "it took head on matters that I care a lot about." NBC anchor Brokaw hosts the committee's International Press Freedom Awards banquet each year. He calls his affiliation with CPJ "a deep
"I feel that I have a privileged position. And I think about my brothers and sisters – people whose names I don't even know – operating in dark and dangerous places, and I wonder if I would have the courage to do the same thing," Brokaw says. "I feel I have to offer them support from this end."
CPJ often solicits high-powered help to accomplish its mission of saving imperiled journalists. "They got Walter [Cronkite] to meet with the Turkish prime minister on behalf of a Reuters correspondent who had been arrested," Brokaw recalls, referring to an incident that occurred in September 1995. "I know we have gotten a lot of people out of jail."
Yet despite the glittery billboard of journalism greats plus an annual International Press Freedom Awards gala that draws the likes of Jane Fonda and Ted Turner to New York's Waldorf-Astoria, CPJ tends to be little known among the rank and file of America's media. "We're better known in Turkey, Ethiopia or Argentina than we are in Iowa or Idaho," says Orme.
"Journalists operating in high-risk regions know who we are. Where we are not known is among the vast mainstream of working American journalists who, like working press everywhere, are absorbed in everyday reporting."
Indeed, many American journalists learn of CPJ only after their own baptism under fire. In 1991, reporters in Central Europe suddenly found themselves trapped in crossfire during the violent eruption of the former Yugoslavia, where civilians and the press corps were among chief targets. (See " 'Kill the Reporters!' " January/February 1992.) CPJ reacted immediately, publishing a "Journalists' Survival Guide" for the former Yugoslavia that could be slipped into a laptop case or pocket. The slim gray booklet became a bible for the press corps and was passed from the old guard to the new throughout the conflict.
As CPJ investigates press violations on site, from Serbia and Ethiopia to Vietnam and India, members of the staff sometimes find themselves staring down the barrel of an AK-47 automatic rifle at checkpoints or being grilled by grim-faced Gestapo-like guards.
It was around 10:30 on a sultry summer night when a thunderous knock on the door jolted CPJ's Suzanne Bilello during her June 1996 fact-finding mission in Havana. Suddenly she faced five strange men, including three from the state security police. They issued a single order: "Pack your suitcases and come with us."
During a three-and-a-half-hour interrogation, Bilello, CPJ's Americas coordinator, was yelled at, harassed and accused of "fomenting counter-revolutionary acts." Her suitcase and purse were searched; her notebook, film and collection of scrawled phone numbers were confiscated.
At one point, the chief interrogator leaned over the desk and shouted, "We know everything you've done since you arrived." Bilello says she was startled by the detailed accounts of her activities the police had compiled. During the grilling, the former Newsday business reporter repeatedly was accused of spying for the CIA.
Bilello was herded to the airport at dawn and forced to board a flight to Cancun, Mexico. She remembers the date well – it was her birthday.
"It was no fun to get into a car with men I didn't know. I strongly suspected their intention was to scare the heck out of me – they play that same game with local journalists," Bilello says. "They sent a clear message. If they wanted to rough me up, they could."
On June 27, 1996, Bilello testified at a congressional hearing on human rights violations in Cuba and submitted her report on the plight of Cuba's independent journalists. She since has left CPJ to head the Freedom Forum's Latin America office.
Two years ago, Orme and Leonid Zagalsky, who at the time was program coordinator for Central and Eastern Europe, traveled to Tajikistan, a former Soviet republic bordering China and Afghanistan, to document a killing spree against journalists. At least 27 had been murdered in the region since May 1992.
A civil war was raging, and a vicious brand of lawlessness had gripped the newly independent region when Orme and Zagalsky crossed the border. "There was a complete suppression of journalism freedom, but nobody on the outside seemed to know about it," says Orme, who slipped into Tajikistan during a lull in the fighting.
Orme and Zagalsky found chilling evidence of journalists being murdered by death squads with direct links to government. They were denied permission to visit prisoners but interviewed the lawyers working on their behalf. They learned there had been no official investigations into any of the deaths and no efforts to release journalists languishing in prison cells.
The committee's report documented "official complicity" in the death of four staffers at the pro-Islamic, Tajik-language newspaper Navidi Vakhshm, all killed in 1993, and noted that journalists regularly were arrested and charged with treason for reporting on human rights violations, especially against the Islamic population.
Orme plays down the personal risks he and Zagalsky took in Tajikistan and turns instead to the importance of making certain that the U.S. and Russian governments, both vital to the region's economic development, are aware of the reign of terror against journalists.
"We know it already has come back to haunt them in the international arena, where they are seeking financial assistance," says Orme. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited CPJ's findings when meeting with Tajik leaders as part of a protest of human rights violations directly tied to further economic aid.
Often, the committee has more direct influence, working to free individual journalists who otherwise would be forgotten.
Ocak Isik Yurtcu was in his jail cell in Turkey when he received word that he was one of four recipients of the 1996 CPJ International Press Freedom Award. It was a bittersweet vindication.
The Turkish editor, serving a 15-year sentence for distributing "separatist propaganda," refused to flee into exile after charges were filed against him in 1994. Instead, Yurtcu stood trial to defend his actions in a country that, according to CPJ, holds the world record for the number of journalists behind bars.
Yurtcu's "crime" was writing a series about the conflict between the Turkish government and Kurdish rebels. That, authorities said, violated a decree that classifies all reports on the Kurdish rebellion, other than those issued by the government, as incitement to racial hatred and propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers Party.
In a letter read at the ceremony in November 1996, Yurtcu wrote: "This award has special meaning because it shows that [Turkish journalists] are not alone as they strive to report the truth, that the global support, in contrast to the lack of national support, is great and sincere. What a pleasure to see a light of hope despite the surrounding prison walls and the deep darkness here."
More than 300 of the 940 guests gathered at the Waldorf-Astoria signed letters of appeal on Yurtcu's behalf. In February, Orme delivered a petition for his release to the Turkish ambassador in Washington, D.C., containing some of the most prominent names in the industry.
In July, CPJ sent an emergency mission to Turkey, led by former AP reporter and CPJ Vice Chairman Terry Anderson, CNN's Peter Arnett and Josh Friedman of Newsday, to push for the release of imprisoned Turkish journalists, 78 at CPJ's last count. The delegation, which included Orme, met with high-ranking government and political leaders. A month later Yurtcu and six other newspaper editors were released. Anderson hailed it as "a triumph."
Among other high-profile cases where CPJ has intervened with some measure of success: When two Croatian journalists for the Feral Tribune, a popular satirical newspaper, were charged with defaming Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, CPJ board member James C. Goodale, an attorney, traveled to Zagreb to present a legal brief on their behalf. The highly publicized case against editor Viktor Ivancic and reporter Marinko Culic was the first test of a law in Croatia making it easier to prosecute journalists for critical reporting on the president, prime minister or other high-level government officials.
Goodale's brief noted that criminal libel statutes "have no place in any country and are especially to be condemned in a self-proclaimed democracy such as Croatia." Other international groups joined the protest on behalf of the Feral Tribune. The two journalists were acquitted.
In October, Ivancic was one of six recipients of the 1997 CPJ Press Freedom Award. After half a year in solitary confinement, Nosa Igiebor, editor of Nigeria's independent Tell magazine, was freed in June 1996. In a letter to CPJ, Igiebor wrote that his release "would not be possible without the relentless international press battle waged on my behalf by the Committee to Protect Journalists."
When a United Nations fact-finding team visited Nigeria in April 1996, the committee insisted it visit Igiebor in prison and demanded an explanation for why he was being held without charges. After the visit, the U.N. representatives issued a scathing report condemning the Nigerian law that allows detention without trial for "acts prejudicial to state security."
After he was freed, Igiebor, a 1993 winner of the committee's International Press Freedom Award, found the phone lines to his home and office had been cut; security agents continue to harass Tell's staff. While at the Christian Science Monitor, David Rohde won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that exposed the massacre of thousands of Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces after the fall of Srebrenica. During his investigation, Rohde was arrested and jailed by Serbian captors.
The reporter was accused of illegally entering Bosnian Serb territory and accused of being a spy. It marks the first time an American journalist had been jailed of crimes in retaliation for reporting on the Balkan war.
After Rohde was arrested, CPJ Chair Kati Marton rushed to Dayton, Ohio, to request a meeting with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who was in the U.S. for the peace talks on Bosnia. During four meetings with the Serb leader Marton demanded he intervene with the Bosnian Serbs on Rohde's behalf.
Later, the editor of the Christian Science Publishing Society credited the U.S. State Department, the U.N. and the Committee to Protect Journalists with securing Rohde's release on November 8, 1995.
CPJ board member Anthony Lewis believes Marton's quick action may have saved Rohde's life. "We can speculate on whether or not [the Serbs] would have killed him – that is in the lap of God. But I know in great detail what Kati did. She was very strong," says Lewis.
There are similar organizations, including the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists in Toronto, and Reporters Sans Borders in Paris, but, Orme unabashedly says, "we have a huge running head start on them. We have more potential impact because we are Americans, working in the English language out of New York City, a main hub of the foreign news world."
Orme calls the competition "friendly and collegial" in regard to who reacts first when crisis strikes the global journalism community. "After all, we are journalists. It is very important to get the story first, to get it out and get credit for it," he says.
Material on the committee's Web site ( http://www.cpj.org ) boasts that it is "the only American organization developed solely to documenting, publicizing and responding to specific cases of press freedom violations wherever they occur." The Web site also offers advice that can save lives, including one-stop shopping tips on such items as body armor and first-aid kits. It also lists summaries of fact-finding missions and warnings about danger zones.
In September 1996, Arnett joined John MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine, and Vikram Parekh, CPJ's Asia program coordinator, for a 10-day trip to Cambodia and Vietnam to investigate press freedom conditions. He was also part of the CPJ delegation to Turkey in July.
For Arnett, this is an unusual diplomatic role. In an interview aired on a Hong Kong cable TV station, Arnett argued that there was nothing wrong with journalists becoming advocates and diplomats on behalf of fallen colleagues.
"Twenty-five years ago, the American media would not encourage their members to take part... They would have said, 'Well, it sort of compromises our standards of newspeople if we have a dialogue with government officials who we'll ultimately be reporting on.' "
The veteran war correspondent maintains it is "part of the sophistication of the international news business," as he describes it, that allows him to take part in the CPJ mission without harming his role as a journalist.
For Dapo Olorunyomi, the clandestine contacts that began with CPJ back in 1995 represented his only hope for survival. Finally, disguised as a trader, he made a run for it across the Nigerian border. Blackmarketeers, it seems, had easy passage if they supplied rum and money to the guards.
Thousands of miles away in another time zone, Kakuna Kerina, his CPJ contact, awaited a telephone call that would either send her whooping with joy or break her heart. With funding from the American arm of Amnesty International, she had arranged passage to the United States if Olorunyomi made it out alive.
"When we're working on a case, we're basically in the trenches with that person. There's a camaraderie, even 5,000 miles away," says Kerina, who is the program coordinator for Africa at CPJ. "When the phone call came, my heart was pounding. I knew it could be bad news," she recalls.
Instead, Kerina learned that the editor, carrying only a pair of blue jeans, a couple of T-shirts and a passport, was on his way to Washington, D.C. Olorunyomi recalls the exact moment their eyes met.
"Kakuna came up to me smiling and said, 'Is this the troublemaker?' " the Nigerian journalist recalls. "I replied, 'Are you the lifesaver?' We hugged each other. We talk often now. There is still much work to be done." l ###