Freedom of the press

First Published: 2006-05-11

Friday, May 5, 2006 at the Rotary Club of East Nassau

Countries around the world celebrated World Press Freedom Day on Wednesday. So what I'd like to do today is talk briefly about Freedom of the Press. What that means, why it's important, and how it's doing around the world.

History of Free Press in U.S.

In the United States, the Founding Fathers, suspicious of tyrannical government, placed strong emphasis on a free press from the beginning of the Republic, making it part of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment's protection of freedom of expression enables the American people to engage in an uninhibited form of debate. The words of the First Amendment are deceptively simple: "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

This right to speak out is a cherished one, perhaps more than any other right. Americans are not hesitant to criticize public officials as important as the president and as commonplace as the garbage collector. They study and comment on every conceivable subject without fear of reprisal from the government.

Former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan described the rights of free speech and a free press contained within the First Amendment as embodying "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The Constitution accepts criticism of high government officials because, as the late Justice Hugo Black put it, no "country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials."

By expressing one's opinions, individuals are free to use reason and logic to win supporters. The expressions may sometimes be unreasonable and illogical, but it is not, the Constitution says, the responsibility of government to make that determination. The expressions must be permitted so people may judge the truth.

All American politicians, including such revered figures as founders — and later presidents — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, have felt the sting of the press. In the U.S. constitutional system, the press occupies special ground, calling upon government officials to account for their actions and publicizing their failures so that voters may better judge them. Despite the ill treatment he received from the press of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Jefferson had no doubt of its importance. "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government," he wrote in 1802, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

A free press, as guaranteed in the First Amendment, plays a watchdog function in a democratic society: bringing people the information they need to exercise independent judgment in electing public officials who favor policies the people support. James Madison, who is regarded as the "Father of the U.S. Constitution" and was the fourth president of the United States, wrote: "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both." A free press is thus an essential part of a democratic society; it enables the people to make informed choices.

Free Press Today

Today, centuries later, ensuring a free press remains an evolving challenge in the U.S. and internationally. In his second inaugural address, President Bush said that "the policy of the United States is to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture." He asserted that while "we had no intention of imposing our own style of democracy on other nations, we do seek to help others find their voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way." Without a free and vibrant press a nation cannot find its voice and become a flourishing democracy.

Freedom of the press is essential to a strong civil society and a healthy democracy. A free press informs and educates the public, provides a check on power and the abuse of power, and gives voice to the persecuted.

Citizens must have the ability to express themselves, to debate alternative ideas and to challenge assumptions. A media that is independent from the state allows the peaceful expression and competition of ideas, on which democracy depends.

Every day, brave men and women around the world risk harassment, beatings, detention, imprisonment and even death for exposing the truth. The instruments of repression include libel laws, government control of the media, self-censorship, restriction of the Internet, and sharp declines in numbers of independent press outlets.

We vigorously promote media freedom as a core component of our diplomacy and our assistance programs because a free press is essential to democracy. We do this by calling attention to efforts to restrict freedom of the press, by supporting the rights of independent producers and broadcasters, and through training for journalists, editors and media managers.

Just yesterday at the Embassy we hosted a digital video conference which brought together members of the Bahamian media and two officials from the Internews Network, a non-profit organization which supports the development of independent media institutions around the world. We talked in particular about the U.S. experience with our Freedom of Information Act, which is one way that the U.S. media can get access to governmental documents and information.

One of the interesting points to come out of our discussion, however, was that the majority of requests made under the Freedom of Information Act do not come from journalists. Its primary users are businesses and individuals, typically requesting information on why their bids on government contracts were unsuccessful, or data on their military records. For both the press and private individuals, then, a Freedom of Information Act is an important tool for increasing transparency and improving governance, two objectives that Secretary Rice and the CARICOM foreign ministers identified in their recent discussions as of vital importance in the Caribbean region.

Around the World

While some countries are committed to a free press and are focusing on ways to deepen institutions that already exist, other countries still have not accepted the need to be open at all. Just this week the independent Committee to Protect Journalists released its list of the "10 Most Censored Countries."

The big winner was North Korea, which has no independent journalists, and all radio and television receivers sold in the country are locked to government-specified frequencies. All of the "news" is positive. According to the country's rigidly controlled media, North Korea has never suffered famine or poverty, despite aid officials knowing that hunger and starvation have affected millions. Instead its people are fed a daily diet of fawning coverage of "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il and his many dubious accomplishments.

Other countries on the Most Censored list include Burma, where a military junta owns all daily newspapers, radio, and television stations, and approves all content; Belarus, whose president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, has jailed journalists critical of his regime or simply had them disappear; and Cuba, which remains one of the world's leading jailers of journalists — 24 independent reporters are currently behind bars. Most were arrested in March 2003 and sentenced to lengthy prison terms after summary one-day trials. Those who try to work as independent reporters are harassed, detained, threatened with prosecution or jail, or barred from traveling. The imprisonment of these journalists in reprisal for their independent reporting violates the most basic norms of international law, including Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees everyone, "the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

The Cuban Government also monitors communication and severely limits freedom of speech. In an effort to increase access to information and to encourage freedom of speech in Cuba, the U.S. Interests Section unveiled an electronic billboard Jan. 16, 2006 that displays messages of freedom, democracy and world news. In response to the billboard, Castro erected numerous flagpoles to partially obstruct it. Points to him for creativity if not for openness.

The differences go beyond these ten countries. There are seemingly fault lines everywhere, dividing us into suspicious camps based on geography or religion or prosperity. But it is also painfully apparent that the democratic ideals cherished by so many nations remain foreign concepts both literally and figuratively to many others.

The UN General Assembly first proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, at a time when the new democracies that grew out of the end of the Cold War were still just beginning their struggles to overhaul their systems of governance. The General Assembly wanted to highlight one of the most fundamental and important institutions that new democracies must develop — a free press.

We find ourselves at a similar point in history today. This time the context is the Middle East. Some countries in that region are taking tentative steps toward democratization but most remain completely undemocratic. Many governments are fiercely hostile to the idea of a free press, refusing to accept or understand the complex but valuable role it plays.

The violent controversy that erupted earlier this year over the publication of a set of Danish cartoons that depicted Muhammad as a terrorist and other gross Islamic stereotypes, is one example that demonstrates the yawning gap in understanding that still must be bridged between the world's civilizations.

The cartoons were undoubtedly offensive and repugnant. They were meant to be provocative in deliberately inflammatory ways. But in free societies, people have the right to express views even when they are offensive and wrong.

There is no excuse for the violence that took dozens of lives in demonstrations against the cartoons. And we certainly all must do a better job of respecting each other's religions. But the only thing more offensive than the cartoons was the idea that newspapers shouldn't be able to publish them if they wanted to. In the United States, some papers ran the cartoons, some did not. But the choice was theirs.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, then, the true test of dedication to a free press is this: will its guarantees be extended to all forms of expression, noble and offensive, reasonable and inflammatory? Can we tolerate and even defend the right of reporters to tell stories that make our blood boil or that run counter to everything we believe?

In a democracy committed to the vitality of its free press, the answer to both of those questions must be yes.

In her World Press Freedom Day message, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, "While the United States will continue working to advocate for greater global press freedom, all free societies carry the responsibility to press restrictive governments to allow an open press. Independent media empowers people, exposes corruption, encourages transparency and prompts participation in the political process. Without it, society as a whole suffers."

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

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