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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944; e-mail:

Knight Fellows explore global threats to free speech

In 1999, militiamen tortured writer Ray Choto and his editor, Mark Chavunduka, for refusing to reveal sources for a story about the arrest of 23 military officials that was published in The Standard, an independent weekly newspaper of Harare, Zimbabwe. Amid death threats, the journalists fled the country. Choto came to Stanford for a journalism fellowship that ended this year -- the same year the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, one of the 10 worst enemies of the press.

Choto told his story July 6 during a campus reunion and conference for alumni of the John S. Knight Fellowships program. His comments were part of a panel discussion on threats to journalism around the world. While Choto will stay at Stanford next year to conduct research under the asylum of the Knight program, journalists in Zimbabwe and elsewhere continue to risk hefty fines, bodily harm and even death for doing their jobs.

Worldwide, 10 journalists have been killed in the line of work so far this year, according to the CPJ, which since 1981 has monitored about 600 press attacks annually. Tyrants oppress through means both fiscal and physical. In Russia, CPJ executive director Ann K. Cooper told the Knight Fellows, intimidation included alerting tax inspectors to writers whose coverage of Chechnya displeased Russian President Vladimir Putin, also on the list of 10 worst enemies of the press for 2001.

China is the world's leading jailer of journalists, with 22 imprisoned under the regime of President Jiang Zemin, who has made the "10 worst" list five years in a row. Other repeat offenders include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of Iran, President Charles Taylor of Liberia, President Fidel Castro of Cuba, President Zine Al-Abdine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine.

While the CPJ sends protest letters to government leaders who have oppressed the press, it's difficult to send letters to one of this year's cagier offenders -- Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Castaņo.

"I have to single out Colombia, which is about as bad as anywhere in the world," Cooper said. An audience member, a Knight Fellow from Colombia, said that about 10 journalists a year have been killed in that nation over the last decade.

Murder is the most extreme way to smite free speech. But an insidious danger, both in the United States and abroad, is the erosion of free speech when it is not diligently defended.

In Zimbabwe, for example, a previous regime placed legal restrictions on freedom of expression that were adopted by the current regime. Those found guilty of making subversive statements can be jailed for up to 20 years. Those convicted of publishing or uttering words "likely to cause alarm and despondency" risk up to seven years in jail.

Moreover, Zimbabwe's Official Secrets Act criminalizes people who give unauthorized information to the press and press members who receive such information, making it extremely difficult to report corruption among high-ranking officials. Further press muzzles in Zimbabwe include government licensing of newspapers and journalists, establishment of a council to enforce a code of conduct for journalists, stopping foreign investors from establishing news organizations in Zimbabwe and prohibiting local media from receiving foreign funding.

The situation in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate. Three days before Choto's talk, photojournalists Chris Mazivanhanga of the Associated Press, Tsvangirayi Mukwazi of the Daily News and Cornellius Nduna of The Standard were arrested in Zimbabwe for taking pictures of riot police beating people.

Cooper said situations rarely improve until a government wants something. When Turkey wanted to join the European Union, she said, Turkish officials paid attention to a spate of editorials in U.S. papers and improved its record. For a country like China, a carrot like potentially hosting the Olympics could drive the country toward better treatment of journalists. The promise of international aid could motivate yet others.

Support from readers and other writers means a lot to persecuted journalists. After Choto received death threats, including a teddy bear sent to his home with bullets and a threatening note tied around its neck, he and Chavunduka received the International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression. Well-wishers sent more than 8,000 letters and postcards encouraging Choto to keep working. His wife and children happily wallpapered the living room with them.

'After the Human Genome' and 'Internet, Interrupted'

During Friday's session, Knight Fellows also explored threats to U.S. journalism, including artificially high profit margins in dotcom years fueling real layoffs in "dotbomb" years. Panel members included moderator Brooke Gladstone, host of NPR's "On the Media"; Tom Kunkel, dean of the school of journalism at the University of Maryland and editor of the Project on the State of the American Newspaper; John Oppedahl, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Sheila Stainback, news anchor for Court TV.

The next day featured a panel called "After the Human Genome" moderated by San Jose Mercury News biotech writer Paul Jacobs. Participants included Stephen Fodor, chair and CEO of Affymetrix (leading designer and manufacturer of "DNA chips"); Paul Berg, the Cahill Professor, Emeritus, of cancer research and biochemistry, Nobel Prize winner and director of the Beckman Center at Stanford's Medical School; and Barbara A. Koenig, associate professor of medicine and executive director of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. Panelists addressed issues ranging from cloning humans to genetic counseling.

In a speech that followed, titled "Internet, Interrupted," Intel chair Andrew Grove outlined factors behind a high-tech pricing recession that will require years for recovery.

The John S. Knight Fellowships Program gives mid-career journalists a year of study away from newsroom pressures but amid the company of other journalists, with the ultimate aim of improving the quality of news. Director Jim Bettinger and Deputy Director Dawn Garcia run the Stanford program.


By Dawn Levy

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