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Paul Smith: How To Kill A Canary…

How To Kill A Canary…

NZ Media Comment By Paul Smith

I had a New Year’s wish - but it proved more fragile than most. It was for the safety of canaries - the human version. Look at it this way: once, coal miners carefully monitored the health of their canaries. If the birds died, they knew they were in trouble.

All over the world canaries of a different kind are dying - they are journalists whose work tells us there’s oxygen enough to live in a civil society. But in the poisoned air of the new century, they are being jailed without trial, murdered, tortured and otherwise silenced.

Hardly a day goes by without news of more fatalities from this front. Early this month as Iraqi journalists prepared to mark the still-unexplained killing of three journalists by United States troops in Baghdad, they lost four more of their colleagues. The deaths bring to 23 the number of Iraqi media, killed in 2007 alone. At least 196 journalists and media workers have died in Iraq since the US invasion four years ago, according to the International Federation of Journalists.

But Iraq isn't the only killing field. From the IJF, here’s a headstone count from a range of countries:

Mexico - April: Amado Ramirez, Televisa correspondent in the beach resort of Acapulco was shot in the back three times by an unknown gunman as he left a radio interview yesterday. The murder came as a wave of killings involving warring drugs gangs has swept across the country in recent days. The attack was one of 12 other similar killings throughout Mexico.

Zimbabwe - April: Edward Chikombo's body was found after he was abducted from his home by a group of armed men. Chikomba was a part – time cameraman for Zimbabwe state broadcaster ZBC. He was suspected of having leaked the footage of the demonstrations and images of brutalised opposition activists which flooded international media organisations like the BBC and CNN.

Pakistan - February: A joint mission of European journalists' organisations found a harrowing new trend in intimidation - two cases of brothers of journalists being murdered to send a message. Four journalists have died in Pakistan this year.

Meanwhile, Reporters Without Frontiers recognised a another trend in the treatment of ‘cyberdissidents’ or bloggers. Sixty of these are in jails around the world for upsetting religious and secular authorities and for getting too close to uncomfortable truths.

In so-called civil Europe, the authorities have been hostile to the notion of press freedoms and the IJF has cried foul: 'In the past few months there have been cases of police and security forces taking action, legally and illegally, against journalists in the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Denmark…Journalists and their confidential sources are under siege from politicians and bureaucrats who are trying to stifle dissent and restrict free circulation of embarrassing information.'

Journalism at its best provides us not just with information but insights into ourselves and society . More important it should keep a check on those who govern us. When its light is snuffed out as it was in record numbers last year, then we too are in danger. The war on Iraq is largely responsible for the upsurge in killings. But long before the US invasion, journalists began to be killed in numbers, and in places far from Iraq. The reasons were as varied as the methods and perpetrators which range from dictators to democracies.

All of it has happened against the rise of conservative ideology - secular or religious - which sees robust journalism as its natural enemy. Ideology is far happier putting in place what it believes is pre-ordained, than being asked why.

Finally there’s the ongoing manipulation of fear. An Orwellian reincarnation of an unending ‘war on terror’ has hi-jacked public discourse into an impoverished ‘either for us or against us’ argument. All of it segues nicely into increased authoritarianism - which scarily, is one of our most enduring traditions.


Paul Smith is a journalist, author and founder of the website, .


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