Stiletto by Max Kolbe – November, 2009

Mexican Mayhem Flavored with a Singapore Sling

Routinely Iraq, Afghanistan and The Philippines share top billing as the most dangerous place on earth for journalists. It’s hardly a coveted title but there are a broad range of countries not far behind the leader’s board and Mexico is rapidly catching up.

According to a tally by El Universal, the country’s top-selling newspaper, 12 reporters, photographers, editors and radio hosts have been slain this year, mostly for reporting on drug trafficking and the corruption that accompanies the trade.

Among the recently killed was Vladimir Antuna García a crime correspondent for El Tiempo de Durango newspaper. He had escaped an attack in April, one month before his colleague, Carlos Ortega Samper, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.

“Most journalists are killed not in war zones but in their own countries as they try to shine the light of the truth into the darkest recesses of their societies,” local unions said at a United Nations-backed World Electronic Media Forum in Mexico City.

Garcia’s slaying received little coverage. Drug related killings in Mexico are even outstripping Thailand’s infamous war on drugs earlier this decade. So far this year more than 5,000 apparent drug-related killings were recorded in Mexico.

“This is what happened to me for giving information to the military and writing what I shouldn’t. Take care of your texts before you do your story,” said a message scrawled on cardboard next to the body.

The deaths in Mexico cast a shadow over the odd blessings elsewhere.

Too often this column details the incarceration of journalists but occasionally there are pleasant surprises. In Afghanistan 46-year-old a Norwegian journalist Paal Refsdal and his Afghan interpreter were released after a week in captivity.

Refsdal was taken near the border with Pakistan and information about the kidnapping had circulated among Norwegian media outlets but they chose not to publish after calls from the foreign ministry in order not to jeopardize the pair’s safety.

Authorities in Tehran have released Farhad Pouladi, an Iranian journalist who works for Agence France-Presse (AFP). Pouladi was among more than 100 people arrested during pro-government and opposition street demonstrations.

Iranian security forces beat anti-government protesters with batons on the sidelines of state-sanctioned rallies to mark the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover.

Also on the pleasant side of the ledger is a pardon by Saudi Arabia’s king of a female journalist, Rosana Al-Yami. She was sentenced to 60 lashes for her role in a television show in which a Saudi man detailed his sexual exploits.

She worked a co-ordinator for the popular show Bold Red Lines. In one episode, Mazen Abdul-Jawad spoke from his bed on how he picked up girls in Jeddah and had sex with them. He was sentenced to five years in jail and 1,000 lashes.

FIFA has also done the media a favour by banning Argentina manager Diego Maradona from football for two months as punishment for his rant at journalists who covered his team’s performance during Argentina’s qualification for the World Cup finals.

It was not Maradona’s first altercation with the press. In 1994 he shot at journalists with an air rifle outside his home in Buenos Aires. Four people were injured and the footballer was given a suspended jail sentence.

“The committee took into consideration the apologies and the sincere remorse shown by Maradona in its decision,” FIFA said.

In Phnom Penh, the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia (OPCC) has found some traction and is about to elect a new president after being put on hold for more than two years due to differences among previous board members.

Canadian Pat Falby of Agence France-Presse is tipped to become president in a move that most foreign correspondents hope will re-establish the club in the country’s sometimes troubled media circles.

His election could not have come sooner. Press freedoms have been curtailed over recent years with local reporters bearing the brunt of information laws that carry hefty fines and jail terms.

Publisher Hang Chakra, who was jailed for one year in June for spreading disinformation, is being supported by King Norodom Sihamoni who has asked prime minister Hun Sen to grant him an amnesty.

Chakra, a well regarded figure among local hands, was jailed after a series of articles were published in may and June accusing officials working under Deputy Prime Minister Sok An of corruption.

Also jailed is freelance journalist Ros Sokhet for spreading disinformation after he sent text messages to Soy Sopheap, news anchor with the Cambodian Television Network.

He received a two year sentence after being charged under the UNTAC penal code, introduced here for the 1992-93 by the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia, instead of the country’s more liberal press laws.

“There are appropriate civil laws in place to resolve media-related complaints and Cambodian press laws should be applied to assist in their resolution,” The International Federation of Journalists said after the sentence was imposed.

Thinking of Mexico and Cambodia reminds me of Singapore and those titans of democracy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his dad Lee Kuan Yew who picked up $US290,000 from a local court after they complained about a story published by the Far Eastern Economic Review and its editor Hugo Restall.

It was perhaps a fitting swan song for FEER as its owners, Dow Jones & Co, are about to send the once mighty publication into permanent retirement.

“The Court casts significant doubt as to whether Singapore will ever recognize the fair and honest reporting privilege accorded to responsible journalism – a privilege available in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries with diverse histories and cultures,” Dow Jones, which disagreed with the verdict, said.

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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