Global challenges to press freedom

4 May

Feature: Cardiff Tribune May 3, 2007 edition

[A rather patchy overnight work for Cardiff Tribune]

Almost 60 years on since the United Nations’ declaration of human right to freedom of opinion and expression in 1948, the press freedom is still in appalling state. Various intimidations, ranging from killing threat to more subtle threat about how the media organisations are run, are preventing public from knowing what they need to know. Different country faces different challenges.

The most tragic way to silent the journalists who are doing investigation on difficult matters are through killing them. The International Press Institute calls 2006 as “the most savage and brutal year in the modern media history.” The murders of famous journalists such as Anna Politkovskaya from Russia and Hrant Dink from Turkey have shocked the public and made the headlines of major publications.

Yet, more deaths have got very little coverage. Forty six journalists died in Iraq last year, making the total to more than 130 journalists to have died there since the war started. The murder of journalists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Mexico, and Sri Lanka are largely unheard. The escalation of violence against journalists and other media professionals have made them only part of statistics.

Director-General of UNESCO, Koichiro Matsuura, dedicating his World Press Freedom Day speech to theme of journalist safety, said: “World Press Freedom Day is an occasion to remind the world of the importance of protecting the fundamental human right of freedom of expression… violence against media professionals constituting today one of the greatest threats to freedom of expression…”

However, more subtle restrictions in less violence countries are not to be overlooked.

Censorship, for many different reasons, is a wide-spread phenomenon everywhere.

It ranges from government censorship, self censorship, and diversion of the media objective from their social responsibility of the media to the public.

In Asia, censorship is a common and carries the message of “nation building”. In China and Vietnam, the press is largely used to deliver governments’ message and agenda to the public rather than scrutinising the government’s performance.

Chinese media are closely monitored by the propaganda office. Yang Ing Jie, a reporter for a major TV station, said: “The propaganda office looks through the news daily and will tell you what not to report. So we have to make judgement if the news we write will pass the inspection.”

But she said that media does work around the control. She said: “Sometimes we are racing with the office to get the news out before the propaganda office can tell us not to report something. Once we are told not to, we stop. But, before (being told), we just report as much as possible.”

Similar but more subtle challenges are faced by Hai Van Nguyen, from Vietnam. She said that self-censorship is the biggest problem in her country.

She said: “The government try to instil to people about the role of reporters for national development. So before we report, we try to think what will be the effect to the country.”

“One clause in the law said that you can report whatever you want to as long as not harmful to the country. But it is an ambiguous term. What is harmful to a country and what is not?” she added.

The challenge in Nigeria is rather different. The control is exerted to the media through financial control and the lack of legal law on freedom of information. Ike Amaechi, a reporter for a Nigerian national daily newspaper remarked: “The most subtle way of intimidating is by threatening the source of income for the media.”

He said that most of media’s adverts are directly and indirectly connected to the government. He said: “The economy in Nigeria is run by government. Everyone one way or the other depends on the government. They can just deny you the advert or they could also blackmail the big businesses not to give you advert. It is the most effective instrument of blackmail. But other than that, they don’t arrest anyone like they did in the past.”

That was the reason that the voices that go against the government or mainstream do not last long. “If they (the adverts) don’t come, sooner or later, the alternative voices will go out of circulation. The alternative voices sprang up from time to time, but they are not in the mainstream,” he added.

The United Kingdom, the financing model of media companies also seems to cause censorships. Gary Merrill, a lecturer, freelance writer and founder of an alternative news website, cautioned that the idea that media as part of corporation has eroded the quality of journalism.

He argued that the nature of corporations is to have high advertising revenue, high viewing figures and, for newspapers, high circulations. As the result, the media tends to give the viewers the accessible type of information and serious issue do not get enough coverage.

He said: “The biggest threat is the powerful organisations. They kind of have monopoly on our consciousness… People have to go out of their way to find an alternative point of view.”

However, the situation is not all bad. In China, in 2006, no journalists arrested in 2006 were still held in custody. In Vietnam, Ms Nguyen said that the safety of journalists is well-protected. There also has been movement to relax the ownership of the media to allow private ownership. Indonesia scraped the offence of insulting the head state, which was often used against journalists in the past. Mauritania, an African country, has freed state-owned press from government control. South Africa has enjoyed high level of freedom of speech since the abolishment of Apartheid in 1994.

There are still threats looming though. Howard Barrell, ex-editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian and a lecturer, he warned against the danger of complacency. He said: “There are potential dangers to press freedom in South Africa. The danger is two sided. On one hand, some of the government leaders now don’t enjoy being criticised. But the way in which they respond to not enjoying being criticised has caused people become quite afraid that they may come to restrict press freedom.”

He argued that other side of that danger is that there are some people who want to be seen to only write nice things about the rulers because they want to be given political respectability and perhaps to ingratiate themselves with new political leadership.

He said: “They will tend to self censor out any unpleasant news. They want to please the new political leadership by giving them the news that the political leadership is going to like – to read or to hear.”

“If that sort of thinking about what media is or should be really takes root, it can cause terrible problem because South Africans then not being told what they need to know and it become a very insidious and treacherous kind of self censorship,” he added.   

Internet has also opened a new cheap avenue for independent journalists who disagree with mainstream media’s practices. Online journalism is cheaper to run and can transfer the information worldwide.

Mr Merrill said that online journalism allows more freedom of expression. He said: So there is not restriction from advertiser, government or editor, which is the purest form of journalism.”

However, the online journalism still faces many challenges. Mr Merrill said: “The accessibility to the media has been increased but the downside is there are so many alternative news website that it becomes diluted. If event happens, people will still go to mainstream media website to find out about it. To try to build a brand name is not easy.”

The challenge in Nigeria is rather different. As the internet is not widely used, online journalism is not as developed as it is in the West and the news still spread through conventional print or broadcast media. Mr Amaechi said: “We have very limited options.”

Whatever the outlets, the essence of journalism is still to hold the powerful to account, to inform the public and to encourage transparency of decision making. Mr Barrell said: “It is important for journalists to be difficult. We have to be a watch dog, not a lap dog.” 

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2 Responses to “Global challenges to press freedom”

  1. alterviews May 26, 2007 at 8:51 pm #

    it’s a good piece

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