Monday, May 2, 2011

Gene Policinski: Take time out to celebrate World Press Freedom Day

  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.

  Those global press freedom figures are from a 2010 report by Freedom House, an independent human rights organization, which has compiled such data annually since 1980. The group’s 2011 report will be issued May 2.

  The figures are worth noting as the United States hosts this year’s World Press Freedom Day on May 3 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.

  The Freedom House report notes 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.

  But these kinds of 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:

    * 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.

  About the author: Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: E-mail:

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