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Speaking at the UN, censoring at home

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By Magnus Ag/CPJ Advocacy and Communications Associate

When the world’s leaders get together next week in New York for the United Nations General Assembly debate, some of the world’s most notorious press freedom violators will take the podium and address their fellow heads of state and the global public, according to a draft speakers list obtained by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Leaders responsible for horrific records of impunity in journalist murders will also be strongly represented.

Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will speak.

Equatorial Guinea’s  Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo will speak.

High-ranking ministers from Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria will speak.

These government heads and ministers represent the top five countries on CPJ’s 2012 Most Censored list.

In Iran, Ahmadinejad leads a government that uses mass imprisonment of journalists as a means of silencing dissent and quashing critical news coverage. Since 2009, a once-robust reformist media has been battered by a government onslaught that includes the banning of publications and the mass arrests and imprisonments of journalists on anti-state charges. Imprisoned journalists are subject to horrible conditions including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and torture, CPJ research shows.

In Equatorial Guinea, Obiang's government tightly controls all news and information over national airwaves. Technically, some outlets are privately owned, but none are independent, as Obiang and his associates exert direct or indirect control. State media do not provide international news coverage unless Obiang or another official travels abroad. Censors enforce rigid rules to ensure the regime is portrayed positively; journalists who don't comply risk prison under criminal statutes including defamation. Security agents closely shadow foreign journalists and restrict photography or filming that documents poverty.

Topping CPJ’s most censored list this year is Eritrea, where only state news media are allowed to operate and they do so under the complete direction of the information minister. Journalists are conscripted into their work and enjoy no editorial freedom; they are handed instructions on how to cover events. Journalists suspected of sending information outside the country are thrown into prison without charge or trial and held for extended periods of time without access to family or a lawyer. The government expelled the last accredited foreign correspondent in 2007.

In North Korea, all content of the countries 's 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency and focuses on the political leadership's statements and supposed activities. Ruling elites have access to the World Wide Web, but the public is limited to a heavily monitored and censored network with no connections to the outside world.

Syrian officials stepped up censorship when demonstrators began calling for Assad's ouster in March 2011, imposing a blackout on independent news coverage, barring foreign reporters from entering and reporting freely, and detaining and attacking local journalists who tried to cover the conflict. Numerous journalists have gone missing or been detained without charge, and many said they were tortured in custody. International media have relied heavily on footage shot by citizen journalists in very dangerous conditions. Since November, at least 21 journalists have been killed covering the conflict, making Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, according to CPJ research.

With the exception of Syria, journalists murders are rare in the most censored countries. But there will be no shortage of countries with horrifying records of deadly, unpunished violence against the press represented at the General Assembly.

Heads of states and ministers from Iraq, Somalia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Colombia represent the five countries topping CPJ’s 2012 Impunity Index, which calculates unsolved journalist murders over the past 10 years as a percentage of each country's population. They will all be speaking next week.

As the international community’s attention is focused on conflict in Syria and nuclear ambitions in Iran, we should not expect press freedom to take center stage at the General Assembly. However, as exemplified by the 2006 Security Council Resolution 1738 condemning attacks on journalists in conflict zones and the recently adopted UNESCO action plan on the safety of journalists and the issue of impunity, the U.N. is one of many arenas where victories can be won on behalf of press freedom. To quote former U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, “We should... recognize the United Nations for what it is--an admittedly imperfect but indispensable instrument of nations in working for a peaceful evolution towards a more just and secure world order.”

I am not criticizing the (imperfect and indispensable) fundamental U.N. policy of letting representatives of all member countries speak. I simply demand that all leaders who take to the podium next week extend the same right to their own people: the rights to speak, to listen, and to share information, without fear of reprisal.

Magnus Ag, a Danish writer and journalist, is CPJ's advocacy and communications associate.

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