New Press Freedom
by Suzanne Hanney, IWPA President
It's not just the killings, kidnappings and arrests of journalists or the uproar
over publication of editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed that tell
you "things don't look too good for press freedom in the world."
It's the seemingly justifiable laws made in the name of national security, public morality or the need to catch criminals. That's what Ronald Koven, European representative to the World Press Freedom Committee, said at the WPFC's biennial meeting April 2 at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago. The National Federation of Press Women holds one of 23 director's seats on the WPFC board and I attended the meeting as Illinois affiliate president and NFPW representative. Freedom of expression is an all-or-nothing concept. Koven quoted John Milton: "the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to my conscience, above all other liberties." Anything less is censorship.
"Yet the embodiment of that spirit in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment has never been so unpopular abroad," Koven said. "The wave of anti-Americanism has made even the best American ideals a hard sell. Press freedom restrictionists have had a field day accusing Americans of hypocrisy" as access to official information shrinks here and a journalist has been jailed for refusing to reveal her sources.
Even European human rights representatives have called the First Amendment a " 'problem,' an obstacle to the laws they favor against hate speech," Koven said. And the United Nations has called for an international convention against blasphemy.
Cultural sensitivity is desirable, the Press Freedom group said in a statement on the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in February. But Islamic authorities should also exercise "mutual tolerance," not censorship, in societies different from their own. "Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society."
The cartoons had been printed in Danish newspapers last fall. Muslim clerics stirred up the controversy when they sought to reprint them in the Mideast during elections there early this year.
Free expression has few friends, even in the UN: 2 out of 3 UN member nations control the press at home. They consider freedom of expression "just an American idea," added WPFC's Dana Bullen.
A U.S. corporation mandated by the Commerce Department currently monitors the Internet, an American invention. But UN control over the Internet was proposed several years ago and backed at one point by the European Union and the governments of China, Cuba, Vietnam, Syria, South Africa and Brazil.
Any change from the current system could severely restrict the free cyberspace we know now. China, for example, has expertly used firewalls to restrict the free flow of information. And it keeps "a veritable army of Internet censors keeping watch against subversive words and sending transgressors to jail," Koven said.
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