Oppressing the Press

In 1993 the United Nations General Assembly initiated World Press Freedom Day in order to celebrate, communicate and advocate freedom of the press. 21 years on and Australian-born Al Jazeera correspondent Peter Greste has been detained while reporting on Egypt’s civil unrest, as well as being accused of having links with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr Greste claims he was only trying to fill his job requirements as a journalist. With this, the question is posed. Is freedom of the press universal and should it be?

American author George Orwell simply puts freedom of the press as “the freedom to criticize and oppose”.

The Australian Press Council’s policy states “Freedom of opinion and expression is an inalienable right of a free people”. Today, many wonder as to what defines a group of “free people”.

The immediate answer would be citizens of democratic states, as ideally journalism and democracy go hand in hand. But even in places that function democratically, press oppression continues to govern journalists and their work in some form.

A journalist’s job is to “seek truth and report it” according to The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.

It sounds simple, right? Wrong.

During Australia’s colonial era, editors, publishers and journalists including Andrew Bent, William Wentworth and Robert Wardell fought for a media free of government censorship. Despite how much time has passed, journalists continue to battle with the barriers that hinder the free flow of information.

If we trace even further back to the Enlightenment era, Voltaire’s stance on free speech and expression was encapsulated when he said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

So a lie to say freedom of the press is a new concept; it has been lurking around for centuries. It is with the spread of democracy and the ideas of freedom of opinion and speech, that freedom of the press has become more prevalent.

Why does freedom of the press threaten a government? Especially if that government is supposed to be democratic? One which is founded upon freedom of speech, opinion and expression.

Journalistic values such as full disclosure and fulfilling the public interest by placing information on the public sphere are what drive journalists.

However in many cases, it is this critic and opposition that Orwell speaks of, that can threaten the political stability of a state. Meaning the values such as achieving full disclosure while doing no harm collide.

If a journalist does create some sort of legal controversy in countries such as Germany, the United States, Canada and New Zealand, journalists can rely on press freedom rights embodied in their country’s legal documents. Rights scripted in a Bill of Rights or a Constitution maximise the protection of journalists and their work.

Greece’s constitution for instance, does not ensure journalistic freedom.

In the country that ironically founded the democratic system, journalist Kostas Vaxevanis was arrested for exposing the names of various politicians with funds hidden in Swiss bank accounts, during the time of the country’s economic turmoil in 2012.

“Instead of arresting the tax evaders and the ministers who had the list in their hands, they are trying to arrest the truth and free journalism,” Vaxevanis said during an interview with the RT news.

Greece’s constitution does not include firm provisions for freedom of the press, leaving journalists like Mr Vaxenvanis unprotected, with no safety net strong enough to justify his work. At times journalists must act as their own bodyguards and make independent decisions as to whether particular material should or should not be published.

In the United States, journalists are defended by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which allows people “to gather, publish, and distribute information and ideas without government restriction; this right encompasses freedom from prior restraints on publication and freedom from censorship”.

Despite the efforts of the US Constitution, press freedom in today’s democratic America continues to be short changed. Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times journalist James Risen said the Obama administration was “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation”.

Mr Risen’s claim was in response to a legal battle he encountered which required him to reveal his sources in court, as part of the White House’s ‘war on leaks’. Since then Mr Risen has taken the matter to the Supreme Court, and continues to fight for the “integrity of the press” as put by him.

The fact that many states do not have a similar constitution implemented to guarantee the security a journalist and their work creates an uneven playing field for press freedom globally.

When US Vice President Joe Biden visited China in late 2013, he spoke of the importance of a free press in a democratic society. During an address to American expatriates living and working in China Mr Biden said “Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences”.

Mr Biden’s opinion was shared publically in a reaction to China’s new restrictive policies on foreign news organisations.

The Chinese Communist Party refused to renew the visas of almost two-dozen journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg News, as a consequence of their “explicit” coverage. The websites of these outlets were “blocked indefinitely” after they published investigative reports on the family wealth of President Xi Jinping and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Access to photojournalists and reporters in China’s autonomous regions including Tibet and Xinjiang also remains heavily restricted. Ever since the international coverage of the 2008 Lhasa and Gansu riots by journalists, international awareness of these region’s conflicts has grown.

Although we would like to assume that journalists are noble creatures, often they are not. It is often journalists themselves who undermine the integrity of their profession.

The impact of the business model on a journalist’s work, whether a journalist is working for a publication or freelance is undeniable. Pressures such as writing for a specific audience, getting those extra clicks or views, earning more money, or boosting one’s reputation often overtake the ethical fundamentals of journalism.

Journalists are guilty of losing sight of what their responsibilities are, and taking advantage of their access to press freedom. In many cases they cause harm to individuals or groups of people, who are involved in their stories.

Mark Twain once said “there are laws to protect freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press”.

Mr Twain has a point. One of a journalist’s many jobs is to support the vulnerable, not to make them even more so.

The responsibilities of a journalist were overstepped when employees from former British newspaper News of the World engages in phone hacking and police bribery, during the pursuit of news stories. A journalist should only need to fulfill the requirements of chasing stories and writing them, and not take on other professions, such as this newfound strand of “private-eye” journalists.

Freedom of the press should act to justify unethical acts committed by journalists’. The methods in which these journalists attained their information went against the fair nature of journalism. Ethical responsibilities were breached, all for a bit of coin.

It is due to situations such as News of the World’s that countries intensify their restriction of press freedom.

David Remnick of the New Yorker believes that Russian president Vladimir Putin has tried “turning back the clock of information” as Moscow and Kiev continue in their political conflict. Mr says that Mr Putin is trying to reverse the liberty of the media that was encouraged in the Gorbachev era.

Galina Timchenko, the longtime and much admired editor of Russian news site Lenta.ru, was fired by state media regulators in March of 2014 and replaced by Alexei Goreslavsky, who remains “far more sympathetic to the Kremlin” in the eyes of Mr Remnick.

Chris Nash, the author of Freedom of the Press in Australia explains ‘freedom’ as ‘an abstract ideal’ and the maintenance of it ‘is a continual process’.

So where does that leave states who don’t have a Bill of Rights or Constitution? What happens to states that have to work harder in maintaining this process of freedom?

Let’s take Israel for example.

Although Israel has not implemented a Bill of Rights or Constitution, their “bill for the promotion and protection of the written press in Israel” aims to protect press freedom. The Israeli bill does not only entitle journalists to “equal protection” to strengthen the written press but encourages “fair competition between newspapers”, according to Jerusalem Post contributor Alan Dershowitz.

It seems to work for Israel, but in states with more ambiguous guidelines, freedom of the press becomes a lot more complicated. It shifts to an issue of human rights and safety. Journalists are often imprisoned like Peter Greste, tortured and even killed as a result of their occupation.

Rachael Denber, the Central Asia Director of Human Rights Watch says the detainment of journalists in Ukraine during it swamping of political tension is “a dangerous interference with press freedom”.

“Detaining journalists and then failing to provide information on what’s happening to them or to respect their due process rights are serious violations that have to end,” she said.

Former Associated Press Anja Niedringhaus’ life as a photojournalist was cut short in 2014 when she was shot dead in Afghanistan. Ms Niedringhaus had spent 20 years covering conflicts in the Middle East. Her work has allowed people to develop a deeper understanding of the people in the region and their cultures. However her efforts did not protect her.

Notably in Iraq, 103 journalists have been murdered since 1992, confirmed by the Committee to Protect Journalists. This makes Iraq the deadliest location for a journalist to work today. Countries that follow Iraq in terms of numbers include the Phillipines, Alegria and Colombia.

The link between these places is that the World Bank classifies them all as ‘developing countries’.

Freedom House found that out of the 197 countries and territories assessed during 2012, a total of 63 were rated as ‘free’ when it came to their press. This means 76 percent of the world’s population continues live in countries whose press is classified as ‘partly free’ or ‘not free’.

One of the biggest things that continues to prevent freedom of the press from being a universal right is that developing countries simply cannot afford it.

The economies of developing countries are unable to financially support the privitisation of news outlets or creation of new ones. Priorities such as aid, healthcare and education override the demand for a free press.

It will require a great deal of time and effort until freedom of the press is recognised an international right. But for now, we cannot call it “World Press Freedom Day”, when half of the world doesn’t believe in it.

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