Editor’s note: This editorial originally appeared in the April 29 print edition of E&P.
World Press Freedom Day dawns today on a planet carved into a confounding jigsaw puzzle that mixes tyranny and liberty, civilization and savagery, technology and entropy. In this age of unparalleled prosperity and invention, more than a third of the world’s population — a staggering 2.17 billion men, women, and children — live without basic civil liberties, according to Freedom House.
No liberty so defines the fault lines of our conflicted world as freedom of the press. Newspapers, radio, and TV now bring the world to houses and hovels with an unprecedented immediacy and impact. Even as nations, rebels, and criminals have stockpiled weapons that would terrify Moloch, tyrants and thugs still quail before the power of the word.
And so the enemies of the press use methods both modern and medieval to lash out at journalists, sometimes literally. Just two weeks ago in Tabriz, Iran, authorities shut down the weekly newspaper Shams-e-Tabriz and sentenced its publisher, Ali Hamed Imam, to seven months in jail — and 74 lashes for “insulting leaders of the regime.” The murderers of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl videotaped their butchery with the same sort of camcorder toted around by Americans in T-shirts and shorts padding through Disney World.
The assault on the press is hardly confined to the Islamic world. The press faces nearly daily violence and intimidation in Asia, in Africa, and in eastern Europe.
But perhaps we should be far more chilled by what is happening in those nations that claim to love liberty. Israel, the Middle East’s only truly free nation, has arrested and roughed up Palestinian reporters without justification. On April 5, the Israel Defense Forces felt free to fire rubber bullets and stun grenades at a group of 25 mostly U.S. reporters waiting for the visit of U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni’s visit to Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound.
The United States, too, has caught this contagion: Several times during the fighting in Afghanistan, American soldiers pointed weapons at American journalists to thwart their reporting.
As Western democratic governments increasingly close down media access and scrutiny, they become more open in their contempt for the press. Democracy’s antipathy was building well before Sept. 11 gave authorities a catchall security excuse. Let’s remember that Vanessa Leggett, a novice journalist protecting the rights of all reporters to shield confidential sources, was spending her 52nd day as a prisoner in the Federal Detention Center in Houston when Islamist fanatics dressed in the business-casual attire of Corporate America steered passenger airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Leggett spent half a year in jail — and now that she is out, the U.S. Supreme Court shows no interest in her case.
On this World Press Freedom Day, we Americans would do well to reflect on whether our own nation’s apathy about freedom of the press is setting us on the path toward ignorance and insularity.
World Press Freedom Day Links
World Association of Newspapers
Committee to Protect Journalists Press Freedom Online
Electronic Privacy Information Center
The Freedom of Expression Institute/South Africa
International Federation of Journalists
International Freedom of Expression eXchange
International Press Institute
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press