TINKER, TAILOR, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar-man, thief.
That is an ancient rhyme.
President, prime minister, statesman, strongman, leader, dealer, tyrant, thug?
That could well be a rhyme for our time.
In their own words, see how some heads of state and government speak about, talk to, or pipe down the press, according to the latest report of Reporters Without Borders.
* Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand, asked at a news conference on 25 March 2015 what the government would do to journalists who do not stick to the official line, said: “We’ll probably just execute them.”
On 5 March 2015, celebrated as “Reporters Day” in Thailand, he said journalists should “play a major role in supporting the government’s affairs, practically creating the understanding of government’s policies to the public, and reduce the conflicts in the society.”
* Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam has tagged journalists as malevolent enemies and dismissed revelations about communist party corruption as “despicable stratagems by hostile forces.” Dung has threatened outspoken bloggers with “severe punishments,” and sent at least 27 citizen-journalists and bloggers to jail. In 2012, the Vietnamese authorities prosecuted 48 bloggers and human rights defenders, sentencing them to a total of 166 years in prison and 63 years of probation.
* President Xi Jinping of China, at a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama in November 2014, was asked by a New York times reporter if Beijing was going to lift its restrictions on foreign journalists working in China. The New York Times had run in 2012 a report on the wealth of then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family. Xi replied: “In Chinese, we have a saying: ‘The party which has created the problem should be the one to help resolve it.’ So perhaps we should look into the problem to see where the cause lies.”
The New York Times has not been able to appoint new China correspondents because the government systematically refuses to give them visas.
* President Thein Sein of Burma has waned media during a radio address in July 2014, his words were not taken lightly. “If media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, I want to warn all that we will take effective action under existing laws.” Seven journalists have been jailed in Burma since the start of 2014. Usurping the press council’s role, the authorities have taken it upon themselves to act as the guarantors of journalistic ethics and to severely punish media outlets deemed guilty of professional misconduct
* Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia often uses the newly-reinforced Sedition Act to order prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and other critics including the cartoonist Zunar. Najib does not hesitate to directly and publicly threaten media outlets with legal action, saying he is ready to listen to “constructive criticism” from journalists, but when they cover abusive government practices, he orders police raids designed to censor and deter media from continuing to cover Malaysian politics freely.
.President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela rarely misses an opportunity to accuse foreign news media such as CNN en Español and the Miami Herald of waging an “international campaign” against Venezuela. In September 2014, he referred to a plan to “poison and dump their poison on Venezuela and elsewhere in the world,” using virulent language to accuse the media of being biased and pursuing a hidden agenda.
* President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in his weekly TV broadcasts known as “Enlaces Ciudadanos” (Citizen Liaisons). attacked the editor of the Crudo Ecuador website, threatening to “respond with the same weapons/” In reaction to a TV presenter’s comments on plans to eliminate term limits for elected politicians, he accused journalists of using “the opposition’s dishonest discourse to demonize what is perfectly legitimate, democratic and transparent.”
* President Juan Orlando Hernández celebrated 25 May 2015 as the Day of the Journalist but in response to allegations of his ruling National Party’s involvement in embezzling social security funds lashed out at “pseudo-journalists [who] dissemble, distort and invent.”
* President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an of Turkey has called journalists who criticize him as “ignorant”, “agents of subversion”, “foreign spies” or even some kind of “terrorist.”
* President Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya, who mixes private and public posts on Instagram, says Muscovite and foreign journalists systematically distort the truth. His nefarious reputation, the summary methods employed by his militiamen, and the tragic fate suffered by many of his opponents lend a great deal of weight to his words.
Journalists who dare to highlight structural problems or criticize the government directly receive immediate warnings that can quickly turn into direct threats or intimidation of family members, RWB said. “The Turkmen, Uzbek and Kazakh leaders have suppressed pluralism so effectively that virtually no critical journalists are left.”
* President Milorad Dodik of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 14 March 2014, in response to a question from Gordana Katana of the independent daily Oslobodenje during a news conference about a relative of his who had been given a prison sentence and was on the run. His response: “When I look at you, I understand why you are always negative. Nothing positive can come from you, anyway (…) The fact that you raise these subjects is not surprising. You come from a newspaper of a certain kind and, obviously, from an ethnic background of that certain too. You do it on purpose.” Dodik subsequently ordered all government departments to cancel their Oslobodenje subscriptions.
When a woman journalist with the TV programme 60 Minutes asked him a question, he replied: “You work for 60 Minutes? It’s a really lousy programme, it’s complete crap (…) I see that you at least are presentable. But you’re not pretty.”
* Hungary’s deputy prime minister last year described investigative journalists as “traitors” and said they were working for a “foreign power.”
* In France, the leaders of the far-right National Front often insult and intimidate journalists, treating them with a hostility that is increasingly seen across the entire French political spectrum.
Journalists in Africa are often treated as spies, terrorists or traitors, and are subjected to threats and physical attacks (that are rarely punished) and to judicial harassment designed to discourage them from investigating potentially embarrassing stories.
* President Yayah Jammeh of Gambia said in 2011: “The journalists are less than 1 percent of the population, and if anybody expects me to allow less than 1 percent of the population to destroy 99 percent of the population, you are in the wrong place.. I don’t have an opposition. What we have are people that hate the country, and I will not work with them.”
Investigative journalism is too often accused of being a form of opposition politics. Obviously there are politicized news media in Africa, but journalists who do nothing more than call on the authorities to account for their actions or draw attention to the population’s problems find themselves accused of “hating their country and government.”
* President Alpha Condé of Guinea in November 2014 said journalists “can do anything they like (…) They can write what they want. It is of no importance. I don’t read newspapers, I don’t go online and I don’t listen to radio stations… I don’t give a damn what Reporters Without Borders writes (…) they don’t rule Guinea. I’m not scared of international law or human rights (…) Everyone will respect the law in Guinea.”
* The bodyguards of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, at an African Union summit in Cairo in 2010, manhandled a British journalist who dared to ask on what basis he considered himself president. “Are your security guards going to hit me in front of the cameras?” the journalist asked. The enraged Mugabe replied: “Stop asking stupid questions. You are an idiot.”
Mugabe brushed aside a journalist’s questions in a similar fashion in April 2014, saying: “I don’t want to see a white face.” His security detail forced several journalists to delete the photos they had taken of him falling as he left Harare airport in February 2015.
Instead of direct verbal attacks on journalists, Middle Eastern leaders usually resort to illegal arrests, arbitrary prison sentences, torture and enforced disappearances when expressing their contempt for the media.
Journalists in the Middle East are often convicted on such charges as “disseminating false information endangering state security,” “supporting or condoning terrorism” or “disturbing public order.” Many have been treated as spies, liars or idiots, but few presidents have publicly voiced such accusations.
* President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has been very inaccessible since the start of the crisis in Syria although it is the world’s deadliest country for journalists.
* President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has also been rarely exposed to the media since his health deteriorated.
* Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran has never given an interview or news conference since taking over in 1989. In 2000, he described the pro-reform press that had emerged since President Mohammad Khatami’s election in 1997 as “a base of operations by foreign enemies inside our country.” The comment was accompanied by an order to carry out raids on journalists and media outlets.
Since then, at least 300 media outlets have been closed as “foreign enemies within the country,” thousands of news websites have been censored and more than 500 journalists, bloggers and other online information activists have been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and given long jail terms, while many others have had to flee abroad. New media and satellite TV stations broadcasting to Iran from outside the country are the latest targets. Iran is now one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists.
* President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has accused journalists who do not toe the government line of being “terrorists.” Not that a great deal is said on the subject. Sisi’s regime prefers imprisonment to insults.