Take time out to celebrate World Press Freedom Day

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Thanks to the First Amendment, I’m free to write these words — and you’re free to read them.

But for about 84% of the approximately 6.9 billion people with whom we share this planet, that’s not the case. They live in nations where the press is only “partly” free from government control or criminal intimidation, or not free at all.

The figures are worth noting as the United States today hosts this year’s World Press Freedom Day with the theme “21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers.” It’s an appropriate focus given the dramatic presence of new-media methods and technology in political and social turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In 2010, Freedom House, an independent human rights organization that annually measures press freedom, noted that “in response to the growing popularity of internet-based applications like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, many governments have started targeting the new platforms as part of their censorship strategies.” In 12 of 37 countries examined, the group said, officials imposed temporary or total bans on such new technology.

In its 2011 press freedom report, released yesterday, Freedom House said that “69 journalists whose work appears mostly online were jailed as of Dec. 1, 2010, representing almost half of all reporters imprisoned worldwide.

But ratings and reports tell only part of the story of the worldwide struggle to gather and report the news freely and report it without fear:

  • Two photojournalists, including Oscar-nominated film director Tim Hetherington, were killed in April in Libya during a battle between rebels and government troops. Two other journalists were wounded in the same incident.
  • Eight journalists were attacked in recent days in Uganda while trying to report on the second day of a walk-to-work campaign protesting fuel prices and government’s inefficiency.
  • The editor of a Ukrainian English-language newspaper was fired on the spot on April 15 reportedly for insisting on publishing an interview with a government minister regarding possible international trade violations. From Bahrain to Sri Lanka, journalists have been arrested for simply doing their job.
  • And, in a ceremony set for May 16, the Journalists Memorial at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. will add the names of 59 journalists who died in 2010 in the course of reporting the news. Eighteen names of newly identified journalists who died in previous years also will be added, bringing the overall total to 2,084.

Information freely gathered and freely reported is the enemy of despots, dictators and criminal cartels. For democracies, it would seem just as obvious that a free and unfettered flow of information is the lifeblood of systems that depend on an informed citizenry to make the ultimate governing decisions.

Newly created global news outlets on the Web, widely used social media, and so-called “data dumps” by groups like WikiLeaks do raise legitimate issues ranging from personal privacy to credibility to national security. Serious critics of the press, here and abroad, are right to point to errors of fact and judgment by journalists.

But on at least one day, we all ought to pause to appreciate the value — and for far too few, the unique national asset — that is a free press.

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