The best of the worst

Several Palestinian journalists interviewed for this story likened Gaza to Iraq, or even Somalia. Not quite. Given the intimidation, deprivation and censorship suffered by their colleagues in neighboring countries, Gaza and West Bank journalists may well consider themselves fortunate. A handful of Palestinian and foreign journalists have died covering the intifada over the past six years, most notably documentary filmmaker James Miller, shot dead by the IDF in Gaza in 2003. Still, Iraq is the deadliest place to be a journalist. In the three years since the war, 98 journalists and media assistants were killed there. Dozens have been kidnapped. Two reporters remain missing, according to Reporters Without Borders (RWB). The twin threats of suicide bombings and kidnappings make Iraq particularly hazardous for ink slingers. But many dedicated Iraqi reporters push on despite the danger and publish independent work that can be critical of the regime. In Iran, a place Lynn Tehini of RWB calls "the Middle East's biggest prison for journalists," few newsmen are killed in the line of duty, but many are arrested. Safa Ha'eri, the Paris-based editor of the dissident Iran Press Service, says "reporters can say anything they want. But then they go straight to prison." Ha'eri adds, "they are used to prison, it's not that bad." They serve relatively short sentences, and return to work, where they are closely monitored, he explains. Press freedoms in Iran have improved somewhat over the years. Only Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and institutions affiliated with his rule are off limits. But journalists circumvent those obstacles to criticize him as well, says Ha'eri. Dozens of Iranian reporters are currently serving prison sentences. Bloggers, hardly anonymous to the regime, often write the toughest criticisms of the regime and are more often than not subjected to the harshest punishments and months of solitary confinement. But the media operate in a gray area. Teheran TV, a stylish local channel modeled after CNN, often skirts the lines between sanctioned and forbidden news. It's controlled by the conservative regime, but its reporters have become experts at navigating officialdom to deliver sharp and sometimes biting reporting, says Ha'eri. Iran has no large-scale private media, but it does have something that the Palestinians don't: a vibrant press syndicate. Incidentally, repeated calls and messages for the head of the Palestinian Press Syndicate, Naim Tubasi, were not returned. A Fatah functionary, he was elected to the post 20 years ago. There have not been elections in the press syndicate since. Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria all rank below the Palestinian Authority in RWB's 2005 index. But not for long, says RWB; the current violence will send it spiraling towards the bottom. But North Korea is the perennial worst offender of press freedoms, according to RWB and Freedom House, an independent organization that supports the advancement of freedom worldwide. In North Korea, a country of totalitarian laws and draconian punishments almost beyond comprehension, the state press is the only press. The ruling party of Kim Jong Il is the only party, and all reporters are dedicated members. Their single aim is not to disseminate information but to glorify the regime and, more importantly, Kim. Slight infractions such as misspelling a public official's name can land a reporter in jail. The North Korean regime also bars reporters and the rest of the public from accessing foreign media, a crime that can be punished by imprisonment and hard labor. Even radios - very few North Koreans own TVs - must be registered with the government. Listeners are only allowed to access government sanctioned and operated channels.