PRESS FREEDOM IN AMERICA TODAY
By Aliyu U. Tilde, Nigeria
One would expect to find United States of America right there at the top of the ladder of Press Freedom index. My expectations were not baseless. The United States has, arguably, the richest heritage on press freedom. Its founding fathers were categorical on the importance of the Press. Thomas Jefferson once said, “our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” I thought that over two hundred years after that statement was first made, citizens of the “Empire of Liberty” that its third President once envisioned must have striven hard enough to reach and remain at the summit of nations that believe in and practice the doctrine, just as its skill and hard work has finally made it to forge on with Western Civilization after Imperial Europe has foundered.
And America did in fact tried hard to be at the summit. About a hundred years ago it passed the First Amendment, which is a body of citizen’s rights that included freedom of the press. Its courts have guarded the press even against content regulation by states like when the Supreme Court in 1974 ruled that the First Amendment mandated freedom, not responsibility to publish. It houses a number of press centres and has the highest newspapers per capita in the world. It has, most importantly, bequeathed to the world constitutional provisions that paved the way to the spread of the ideals and practice of the doctrine to many parts of the world.
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which Lyndon Johnson signed into law in 1966 is perhaps the single most revolutionary legislation that has aided journalism and the fight against corruption since World War II. That piece of legislation has crossed the Atlantic and caused some dramatic damages to politicians in Britain two years ago. The Nigerian National Assembly has just passed it and I cannot imagine the explosion it would cause when finally put into action.
American presidents are also renown for their rhetoric on press freedom. This year, when it hosted the World Press Freedom Day, its President and the de facto “Global Inspector-General of Police”, pointed accusing fingers at some countries. “Last year,” he declared,
“was a bad one for the freedom of the press worldwide. While people gained greater access than ever before to information through the Internet, cell phones and other forms of connective technologies, governments like China, Ethiopia, Iran, and Venezuela curtailed freedom of expression by limiting full access to and use of these technologies.”
Obama was not done. “Moreover,” he added,
“more media workers were killed for their work last year than any year in recent history. The high toll was driven in large part by the election-related killings of more than 30 journalists in the Philippine province of Maguindanao, the deadliest single event for the press in history, along with murders of journalists in Russia, Somalia, Mexico and Honduras. In this year, like in other years nearly three out of four of the journalists killed were local news-gatherers who were murdered in their own nations.”
Finally, American journalists themselves seem to have an inbuilt impression that their milieu is the best a journalist can operate on. “We have it much better than any where in the world but it is not as if we don’t have stain either”, recently declared David Kansas, Chief Market Correspondent, Wall Street Journal, when he appeared before us on a discussion panel titled “State of Press Freedom in America” at New York office of Foreign Press Centre. In that discussion, Joshua Friedman, Director of International Programs, Columbia University of Journalism School, spoke about the “four reasons,” why “it is easier to practice journalism here”.
And the reasons are really enviable to the rest of world, even if he sounded a bit condescending:
1. There is no Press law. In your countries, mostly, they have a press law that says it protects journalists. It does not.
2. No certification. Any idiot can get up in the morning and say I am a journalist, especially if your father has a printing press or you have a computer on your desk.
3. No Criminal Libel. If I libel someone, may be I have to pay money, but they can’t throw me in jail as they can in your countries, which is a simple trick when they do not allow you to have information, you get it wrong, they say you go to jail.
4. Easy to get documents since the last forty years. There has been a reform which we call FOIA. We do not have to rely on gossip and rumours as you do in your countries. (End of quote)
The point is that despite the above enviable record, America was the 15th on this year’s Freedom of the Press index. The index, in the words of its authors, Freedom House, Washington, “assesses the degree of print, broadcast and internet freedom in every country in the world, analysing the events and development of each calendar year.”
The countries ahead of America on this index are, in top to bottom order, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg, Andorra, Denmark, Switzerland, Leichtenstein, Netherlands, Palau, New Zealand, St. Lucia, Ireland, Monaco, Germany, Marshall Irelands, Portugal, St. Vincent and Grenadines, and San Marino.
Then came America …
What would have informed its delayed arrival on the list? This was one of my major concerns throughout the recently concluded World Press Freedom Day celebrations. The discovery of factors that impede the complete realization of such important article of liberty in America will definitely be of importance in understanding the roots of the constraints to press freedom in my own country.
Let us start with the Freedom of Press 2011 highlighted about the United States. In the only paragraph it dedicated on America, it said, the position is even an improvement on the previous years:
“The United States remain one for the better performers in the index, but it faces several challenges, including a lack of protection-of-sources legislation at the federal level and a threat to media diversity stemming from poor economic condition for the news industry. In 2010, protection for free speech was strengthened by a new law designed to shield American writers from “libel tourism” cases in foreign lands. Also during the year, several major releases of classified documents by the anti-secrecy organization, WikiLeaks, led to heated debates over the ability of democracies to take legal action against those responsible for publicizing leaked information.”
Beyond these, I was privileged to capture the more notorious problems from the May 5 discussion at the Foreign Press Centre in New York. When the moderator of the panel, J.B. Leedy, asked Edith Lederer, a member of the panel and Chief UN correspondent, Associated Press (AP), about the challenges facing the press in America, she admitted, after explaining how APs maintain First Ammendment lawyers on is payroll, that the past ten years has not the most difficult to get information:
“In my journalistic career there is a lot greater effort in the past ten to fifteen years to try to very tightly control access to information. In the US those of us who try to practice this craft professionally, there is a lot of barriers to jump.”
Joshua Friedman also came in to shed more light on “why the freedom of expression is rolling back in the USA. He said,
The major reason in my view is that the membership of the press is changing… We had a tradition in this country when newspapers, being the major medium of news, were owned by individuals or families usually in a particular city… I would say since the 70s, especially in the 90s there is a huge shift in corporate ownership of the media… the problem… since when the Reagan administration began to relax the rules that prevented the conflict of interest…. So now the press in the US is not as fiercely independent as it should be. But still it is a hell lot better than in your countries. “
Then Leedy asked David Kansas if he “ever had a political pressure as editor in the “still conservative” Wall Street Journal which was recently acquired by a new investor. He replied,
I think remarkably no… That does not mean that we do not get political pressure or questions about why a particular story line is not being followed by staff editors… But I do know that prior to acquiring the present ownership the management of our paper had a particular point of view about the Iraq war and there were questions in the news meeting during the second Iraq War that seemed strangely leading from time to time…
An editor in the US has great freedom as have been described but they will still face pressure. Here is a local paper in the US that wants to write a top story about the auto dealer who is their main advertiser, the main source of income for the entire paper, you can have a very difficult task and it means it is very hard to write that story. I was the head of a business journal organization just created to give editors the backbone to try to deal with that kind of local pressure. And if you work in Wall Street Journal, a national paper, you will get pressure to face questions and the skill of an editor is to phase down these questions and protect the reporters can pursue their reporting activities without fear or favour.
And it is not as easy as it sounds. You just don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I can do anything I want; there is nothing to worry about.” There are always competing pressures. We have it much better than any where in the world but it is not as if we don’t have stain either.”
The above comments have clearly shown that even in the US, media houses are not absolutely free from pressure of interest groups, like in other countries. Ownership and patronage would continue to remain eternal sources of such pressures. It reflects the ancient adage of the tone of the pipe following its benevolent sponsor. The hands of government will continue also to subtly regulate the broadcast media, with its monopoly over licensing as Friedman has pointed out, though we expect such control to be more subtle in the US than it is in the developing countries.
Finally, I would like to mention the constraints imposed by the position of America in the world as a superpower. This is where issues of national security wade in to apply sharp brakes to freedom of the press in America. At no time has this phenomenon manifested itself since World War II than in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre bombings and the in the wars that ensued – Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bush administration succeeded in gagging the entire American press to the extent that any criticism of government policy on the war was interpreted as unpatriotic. It is now clear that Saddam did not have the nuclear arsenal that was used as a pretext for the second Iraq war. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, one would wonder how the foremost champion of liberty and freedom of the press in the world could not discover the facts that would have saved thousands of American lives and the destruction of the Iraq.
The war in Afghanistan has imposed more strict limitation to personal liberty and freedom of the press. Addressing a gathering of jurists on Eminent Jurists Panel on Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights in 2006, Frank Smyth, the Washington Representative and Journalist Security Coordinator of Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) noted that
“In the aftermath of September 11 and through the invasion of Iraq, CPJ identified a trend among U.S. cases of assaults on source confidentiality, including the prolonged detentions of several U.S. journalists who resisted subpoenas in criminal cases, we also highlighted three categories of attacks on the press: (1) efforts to restrict information aired by U.S.-funded broadcasters, and attempts to persuade both private U.S. television networks as well as at least one foreign broadcaster to restrict the news; (2) attacks by U. S. forces known as foreign media broadcasting sites as well as one hotel with a concentration of international journalists; and (3) the prolonged detention of foreign journalists by U. S. military forces at overseas locations.”
Then Smyth went on to list examples for each category of attack on the press by the U.S. government and its officials.
Perhaps if we examine the nature of how even organizations like the United Nations guard their information, we would be more inclined to moderate our criticism of the American government that occupies the position of a superpower, with a defined territory and a specific citizenry whose interest it must guard world over.
At the New York Foreign Press Centre discussion panel, the Chief UN correspondent of AP, Edith Lederer, gave us some insight into the difficulties confronted by journalist attempting to dig into the activities of the body. “It is hard to ferry out information from the UN… You just can’t go and ask for freedom of information records.”
If the UN that is the mother of UNESCO, the world body mandated with overseeing human rights and freedom of the press would be so limiting in acceding information to the press, it will not be difficult to understand what a sovereign nation like America would do to secure sensitive information relating to its national security, as it sees its war in Afghanistan, or when it undertakes “a war of choice”, as Obama often refers to its misadventure in Iraq.
All said, America by the circumstances of its position as a superpower would continue to trail behind many nations in freedom of expression, despite its rich heritage of laws and institutions that safeguards the doctrine. The nations above it on the Freedom of Information index ladder are understandably small nation that hardly face such enormous challenges. It might still be comforting for the average American to note that his country is ahead of the United Kingdom and Germany, not to mention countries like Russia and Italy, which though sharing the ideals of Western civilization, could not make it even to the list of countries with a free press in 2011. Forever, the twin problems of ownership and patronage will also continue to pose challenges to journalists in both the print and broadcasting media since the entire economy is profit based but especially in periods of financial uncertainties. Given these facts, the press in the developing countries, I would advise, could as well be less utopian about its freedom.
Jefferson may need to moderate for us his stand on press freedom via email from beyond. I cannot say whether he would have been more generous to journalists than either Bush or Obama, were he the President today. In any case, the reality is that America, against his prediction, has been able to limit press freedom in the ways mentioned above but without losing it.
27 May, 2011