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Why media freedom is important to everyone – not just journalists

It is a sad truth of journalism that we are often liked best when we are at our worst, and disliked most when we are at our best. Or, at least, that seems to be so in the often rocky relationship between the media and those in authority, whether in government or big business.

Very few governments like a free and unrestrained media. They dislike us when we criticise their policies or performance, they despise us when we give voice to opposing views and they absolutely loath us when we expose corruption in their own ranks.

Ironically, of course, politicians in opposition usually love the media when we are doing our best work. It is only when they get into government that these same politicians suddenly see how awful the media really are.

To be fair, some political leaders acknowledge that the media, for all our faults, play a vital role in society.

As The United States prepares to elect a successor to George W. Bush, it is timely to remember the words of one of America's greatest 20th Century Presidents, John F. Kennedy, who said of media freedom: “There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”

It is therefore alarming for everyone – not just journalists – to think that media freedom might actually be in decline throughout the world.

Earlier this year, the civil liberties watchdog Freedom House released its latest Freedom of the Press Survey for 2008 and concluded: “The current edition of the survey … points to declines on a global scale in 2007, with particularly worrisome trends evident in the former Soviet Union, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The findings mark the sixth straight year of deterioration in the level of press freedom worldwide, with particularly marked declines noted in certain countries and regions. Improvements in a small number of countries were overshadowed by a continued, relentless assault on independent news media by a wide range of actors, in both authoritarian states and countries with relatively open media environments.”

Now, one should acknowledge up front that Freedom House is not necessarily a totally unbiased or disinterested body. It receives much of its funding from the US Government and has been accused of taking a very conservative, pro-US view of world freedoms.

Nevertheless, its 2008 survey ranks the United States 21st in press freedom, lower than Estonia and Portugal and a long way short of top-ranked Finland, so it has not exactly ‘fixed’ the figures in favour of its principal paymaster.

More importantly, any reasonably knowledgeable journalist or other observer of world affairs coming from a tradition of free press democracy will find lots to agree with in its survey findings.

One doesn’t have to look far for evidence, whether from China’s unashamed breaking of its promise of media freedom during the Beijing Olympics to the Australian Government’s draconian laws on reporting terrorism.

Of course, few governments - beyond, perhaps, bottom of the pile North Korea – admit to limiting media freedom just because they can. The reasons are most often couched in terms of ‘national interest’, ‘public protection’ or similar phrases, hoping that the nation’s citizens or public will fail to spot that suppression is actually in the government’s interests, rather than their own.

There is a huge difference between the two and it is one of our jobs as journalists to remind our readers, listeners and viewers of this fact.

That task is, of course, often difficult for journalists working under governments which try to constrain, intimidate or even harm them.

Every year organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists and the Committee to Protect Journalists track attacks on journalists and report a continuing death toll among the profession – many killed or injured intentionally because of what they wrote or broadcast.

At one extreme, the IFJ reports that in the last 12 years more than 1,100 journalists and other media workers have been killed on duty around the world. While many deaths are the result of accidents – or “being in the wrong place at the wrong time” – the IFJ says many of them were deliberately targeted because of what they wrote or broadcast.

The CPJ keeps a running tally on the front page of its website of journalists killed to date each year, with reports on what happened in each case. At the beginning of September 2008 the death toll stood at 23.

These are, of course extreme cases of media suppression. Even more common around the world are the more mundane ways of restricting media freedom.

One doesn’t need to travel to the world’s war zones or countries like North Korea to witness this worrying trend.

In the normally peaceable Pacific region cases are springing up more frequently.

Over the past few months two journalists were questioned over several hours by police in Fiji seeking information about stories they wrote. Admittedly Fiji is currently under military rule but the junta’s leader Commodore Frank Bainimarama claims to value media freedom while at the same time drafting laws to fine or even imprison journalists for doing their duty.

In Indonesia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promised no press censorship during upcoming elections while at the same time his Vice-President Jusuf Kalla was warning journalists that freedom should be “for the interest of the nation”, a statement which was widely interpreted as a warning to journalists who do not toe the official line. Journalists in Indonesia – which since Suharto has developed a thriving media – are routinely harassed and prosecuted for the normal performance of their duty.

The newly independent East Timor is considering making ordinary defamation a criminal offence - it is usually a civil matter in free press democracies - and is looking at a licensing system for journalists. This latter is a very dangerous development; while it may seem to give licensed journalists status, those licences can be withdrawn at any time, silencing the journalist and putting them out of a job at the same time.

The list grows by the month of governments who feel - contrary to historical evidence – that they would prefer a compliant, timid media to vigorous, nation-building journalists.

The folly is that banning free speech does not work in the long term. As Ugandan Human Rights activist Mutabazi Sam Stewart colourfully puts it: “Suppressing the media is like drowning a balloon under the sea. It will always come back to the surface.”

Of course, journalists are often their own worst enemies. It is hard to defend sloppy, inaccurate or viciously partisan reporting or the kind of shallow “celebrity recycling” which passes for professional journalism in many newspapers, magazines and television networks.

But no systems in society can be successful in the long term by punishing the good for the sins of the bad.

Even Sir Michael Somare – one of the region’s most senior politicians and a frequent critic of the media despite once being a radio broadcaster - spoke out recently in almost Jeffersonian terms about the need to protect freedom of expression.

“Media freedom is my freedom,” he said in a speech marking the second anniversary of The Sunday Chronicle. “Media freedom is your freedom. Media freedom is our freedom. But with this freedom comes lots of responsibility.

“I know our wantoks [close friends] in Pacific Island countries like Tonga and Fiji have had some rough times with their respective governments over media freedom and freedom of expression. But they are their own countries, with their own governing authorities who do what they perceive to be good for them.

“Papua New Guineans should be grateful we have not trodden this path during my time in Parliament, nor do I think we ever will. But we must never take this liberty for granted.”

And for the record, America’s third President Thomas Jefferson - himself not always a friend of journalists - famously wrote: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”

September 2008

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For further discussions on these issues within The News Manual, you might want to visit the following chapters:

Chapter 1: What is news?
Chapter 2: What is a journalist?
Chapter 27: Political rounds
Chapter 58: Pressures on journalists
Chapter 62: Privacy and public interest

For more on some of the organisations mentioned in this article, click on the following links:

Freedom House
The International Federation of Journalists
The Committee to Protect Journalists

For more quotes by Jefferson on journalism, the media and liberty, go to: http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/jeff1600.htm

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