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In the Firing Line

Journalists reporting from the West Bank have been hemmed in by army censorship and bullets. The issue throws light on a press freedom crisis, which has been mounting in conflict areas all over the world.

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Ramallah: Off limits to journalists.

In 2001, a Chinese journalist was sentenced to eight years in prison for reporting on corruption. In Iran, the government suspended 20 newspapers and publications. And in Zimbabwe, Information minister Jonathan Moyo denounced the country’s independant journalists as "terrorists".

Since September 11, journalists all over the globe have been facing an unprecedented freedom crisis. While the world focused on Manhattan and Kabul, governments elsewhere, including Zimbabwe and Eritrea pounced on the opportunity to crackdown on independent media.

Not linked to the September 11 attacks, but just as grim are the restrictions journalists have been facing in Israel since the current Palestinian uprising, which began in September 2000.

With the situation heating up in recent weeks, the Israeli army responded to journalistic enterprise with bullets, tear gas, shrapnel, physical assault, according to reports.

Deliberately targeted?

In February, French journalist Laurent van der Stock was shot in the leg, apparently by an Israeli bullet, while covering Palestinian demonstrators throwing stones at Israeli soldiers in the west Bank near Ramallah. Abu Dhabi TV correspondant Layla Odeh was struck in the leg by a live round while she was filming in the Gaza trip - where no clashes were taking place.

On Sunday, Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid was hit in the shoulder by a bullet he thinks came from an Israeli soldier. Shadid is in good condition in a Jerusalem hospital.

In all, 16 cases of journalists wounded by live rounds or rubber-coated steel bullets in the West Bank between September 2000 and June 2001 have been reported by the Committee to protect Journalists (CPJ).

The number may even be higher: French-based organisation Reporters Sans-Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders) reported more than 40 cases during the same period.

There is no circumstantial evidence that the Israeli forces deliberately targeted foreign reporters. But the fact that a large number of those hit by bullets were clearly recognizable as journalists, speaks for itself.

Reporters avoid media ban, come under fire

Palestinänsische Schützen

Palestinian gunmen fire on Israeli forces. An Israeli sniper killed the gunman in the background a short time later.

In the past days of heavy fighting in the West Bank, the situation for press reporting from the area under siege has worsened. On Friday, the West bank city of Ramallah was declared off-limits to journalists. Since then, the ban has been enforced – using, if neccessary, violence to prevent media from reporting.

The Israeli Government Press Office has announced that "no foreign citizens (including members of themedia) are allowed to be in the closed zone," and that "anyone found in the closed zone henceforth will be removed. Members of the media are advised that their prescence in the closed zone is at their own risk".

On Monday, NBC correspondent Dana Lewis and his two-person camera team came under Israeli Defence Force fire in Ramallah while driving an armoured vehicle that was clearly marked as a press vehicle.

On the same day, BBC reporter Orla Guerin was shot at while covering peaceful protesters walking through Bethlehem.

And on Tuesday, Gamma agency photographer Atta Oweisat was detained by Israeli troops and held blindfolded and handcuffed for six hours.

Duty to report

The Committee to Protect Journalists reiterated alarm at increasing press restrictions and violent attacks towards journalists in the West bank on Tuesday.

"Barring journalists from conflict areas constitutes censorship", CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said. "Although Ramallah is indeed a dangerous place, journalists are there because they have the duty to cover this important story".

Covering important issues, however, has cost the lives of more journalists than ever before.

Daniel Pearl

This photo sent via e-mail to the New York Times Saturday, Jan. 26, 2002, shows a man identified in the e-mail as Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Pearl, who had been missing since Jan. 23., 2002 after being taken hostage by Islamic extremists in Pakistan, is now believed to be dead, the Wall Street Journal said Thursday, Feb. 21, 2002. (AP Photo/The New York Times, File)

In 16 lethal November days, eight journalists were killed in Afghanistan, pushing the death toll from 24 in 2000 to an unprecedented 37 worldwide total in 2001. Afghanistan's deadly spell reached a climax with the very public kidnapping and excecution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl (photo) in Febuary.

Worst year yet

The lawlessness and violence in Afghanistan has presented a severe challenge to reporters, even those with war reporting experience. Yet Afghanistan is only one of numerous dangerous places where journalists are working from worldwide.

After four years of steady decline, the number of journalists in prison increased last year by almost half, from 81 in 2000 to 118 in 2001. The heaviest, yet at the same time less noticed crackdowns occurred in Eritrea and Nepal after September 11 last year, followed by China, who arrested eight more journalists, bringing a total 35 behind bars.

However, most of those killed last year were not involved in combat. According to Ann Cooper from CPJ, we should rembember "that journalists around the world who uncovered corrupt legal acts and graft at high levels of power were murdered with impunity".

Not to be forgotton are those who may not have been killed or imprisoned, but must endure relentless pyschological pressure. Georgian journalist Akaki Gogichaishvili for example, reports from his cramped offices daily on illegal activities and official corruption, depiste constant threats.

He may not live in an area as mine-ridden and marred by violence as Afghanistan. But Gogichaishvili, who is at home, cannot even retreat from the firing line.

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