The meeting with Aquino was very brief. I think he understands very clearly, but that was not really a working meeting. (We had a working meeting with other officials in his government—I wasn’t there but other representatives from the CPJ staff and board were.) When I say he understands, he understands that it is doing significant damage to the international reputation of the Philippines and that is something that needs to be addressed. Whether there’s political will to do that and whether his government is going to devote sufficient resources and attention to get that done, that’s the open question. He’s certainly made some of the right noises and that’s positive. Our role is to motivate that process.
Have you found that the press in these countries report on the index themselves when they’re released?
They do. We got very significant coverage when we released it and that’s the idea. And more and more domestic media in a lot of these countries is paying attention to it. I know it was widely covered in Russia and in the Philippines.
Iraq’s been listed number one on the index since you introduced it. What’s unique about suppression of the press in Iraq and what makes it so far and away the worst by this measure? Ninety-three murders, all unsolved.
The level of violence against journalists in Iraq is absolutely staggering and, while it’s subsided, it hasn’t completely disappeared. At the height of the violence, we had two years in a row where we had more than thirty journalists killed. There was obviously generalized violence across the society, but journalists were certainly singled out. You didn’t even have to write critically about some of these militant or sectarian groups—just the fact that you were a journalist or working for an international media outlet could get you killed. The scale, and the ferocity and the violence, was unprecedented. Iraq retains a perfect record of impunity and now is the moment they need to start turning that around.
Does lawlessness in a place like Iraq it make it extremely difficult to do the kind of outreach and advocacy organizations like CPJ do? To even attempt to start turning things around?
It’s impossible. But Iraq is changing. The government is weak, it’s facing new challenges because there are demonstrations going on. But it’s also reached a level of maturity where it needs to be held accountable for this record, and we’re starting to do that. There have been a couple of murders under the Kurdish regional government as well. The perception is that Kurdistan is not confronting these kinds of issues. But the reality is there’s increasing violence against and repression of journalists there. We’re absolutely holding them accountable for that record and believe they should be responsive to that kind of pressure.
One of the issues that comes up in this report, and is an obvious extension of violence against journalists, is self-censorship and a “chilling” effect. It seems to be something that’s difficult to concretely measure because it is something that is inherently hidden. How do you go about getting a grip on how much self-censorship is pervading a particular country’s media?
You have to do it reportorially. We’ve done reports on self-censorship—we did one on self-censorship in Colombia a few years ago. The thing about self-censorship is that if you’re afraid to publish a story because it’s going to get you killed, you’re not then going to go to a journalist or someone from the CPJ and say, “Here’s a story that I’m not going to publish because it’s too dangerous, let me tell you about it.” If there’s self-censorship, then by definition they’re not going to talk about it because they’re afraid. It’s like covering any other kind of human rights issue. You have to develop very close relationships with your sources. They have to feel confident that you can protect them. You have to feel confident that they’re being honest. It’s a painstaking thing to document. But on one level it’s also obvious—you can just talk to people in an anecdotal way, over dinner or something, and they will say, “Oh my God, I know this but I’m not going to publish that because it’s going to get me killed.” That kind of stuff you become aware of. What’s much harder to do is to document the systematic nature of self-censorship.
Going back to the higher level meetings you have had with governments, one of the issues I imagine comes up is that you’re meeting with people who in some cases are involved in the corruption. How do you go into a negotiation with someone who may not be particularly sympathetic to your view or is looking to undermine it?