What is Reporters Without Borders trying to do and why? As we take our annual look at press freedom around the world, we need, as ever, to keep a sharp eye on our goals.
People often criticise us for being too hard on poor countries and letting Western democracies off lightly. “Moralising by the rich,” they say. “It’s your culture that’s talking.”
This might seem borne out by the world press freedom rankst the media in the last three regions than about the sometimes heated disputes in democratic countries about how to handle information and theings we drew up for the first time in 2002. Seventeen of the top 20 countries were in Europe and North America and 18 of the bottom 20 were in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
And indeed, this report contains far more about crimes, physical attacks and abuses committed again news.
Our answer is still the same. We firmly believe that attacks on the free flow of information are relative. We think the complete absence of press freedom in one country is more serious than simple flaws and abuses in another. We think journalists who cannot work without risking death or injury deserve more help than their colleagues in countries where the press is a true “fourth estate.”
If we were in the business of food aid, we would be helping those with nothing to eat more than those with not enough. We think this approach applies all the more to freedom of expression and information in a world where many more countries are trying to stamp it out than are largely respecting it.
We are well aware, and we say so, of the threats to civil liberties, including press freedom, contained in some of the steps taken in 2002 by the US government in its fight against terrorism. We know that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s control of the broadcast media is bad for Italian democracy, and we say so. We protest too each time French police or courts challenge a journalist’s right not to reveal sources.
We recognise that the dependence of reporters on the military in wartime makes their work less credible. But all these real problems do not alter the fact that in the United States, Italy and France, news flows more freely than on average in the rest of the world, and that their journalists enjoy an independence that is the daily envy of colleagues living under repressive regimes everywhere.
Our attitude is backed up by a recent World Bank survey called “The Right to Tell,” in which economists and sociologists from all over the world say bluntly that an independent media is crucial to economic and social development in countries that are politely said to be “in transition.”
Several of the contributors criticise, as we do all the time, the very many countries where all channels of expression and news are controlled by a dictatorship or a single legal political party. This, they say, prevents the openness and exchange of opinions that are vital for any society to go forward.
Without recommending anyone one model of government, they stress that a country’s “good governance” requires institutions that can point to abuses of power, corruption and embezzlement of public money, in the same way that a responsible political opposition and an independent judiciary are needed to restrain those in power.
The 300-page survey concludes that development funding by the World Bank and other international bodies must include encouragement of independent media and, where necessary, the training of journalists.
Our report on press freedom in 2002 shows the enormous amount of work that needs to be done to get the powers-that-be to accept independent media. Of the 25 journalists killed during the year, more than half were murdered by regime henchman, armed groups, organised crime figures or agents of powerful interests the victims angered.
Some 40 per cent more journalists were arrested during the year and physical attacks and threats doubled. Nearly 400 media outlets were censored and at the end of the year 121 journalists were in prison around the world, compared with 110 a year earlier.
But we are cheered that our fight for press freedom is recognised as more than just a humanitarian and professional battle, even though our defence of article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks for itself. We now know that our fight is helping societies to become more prosperous and their people to enjoy more fruitful lives.
This stiffens our resolve to intervene as often as we can to ensure that Western democracies, starting with France and the European Union, pay greater attention to the state of press freedom in their policies towards the world’s dictators, big or small. Such policies must be more than just “pragmatists” on one side and “human rights advocates” on the other talking at each other without listening.
As journalists before being activists, we know democratic governments have strategic, political, economic and social responsibilities beyond pushing for this or that aspect of human rights in far-off countries where they are still abused. But despite the fine words we hear from time to time, we think most European governments are still much too lax towards regimes that daily scorn the principles and rights that democracy requires. Unfortunately, we cannot expect too much from an international community that recently handed to Libya the presidency of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
A new example of the spineless attitude of Western democracies towards authoritarian regimes are preparations for the UN World Summit on the Information Society. Because of its huge agenda, the summit is being held in two parts, the first in Geneva this December and the second in Tunis in autumn 2005.
The summit will try to find ways to spread new information technology more equitably around the world to stop the gap widening between those with knowledge and those without. The spread of computers and electronic communication can help the poorest countries make up their shortfall in education, health and professional training and give them all kinds of other tools to raise living standards.
The preparatory meetings so far held on several continents unfortunately give the impression that the summit will focus more on government control and supervision of the Internet than “digital solidarity” between rich and poor.
It is hardly surprising that extensive criminal use of the Internet is spurring most governments to take steps to control it that require international agreements to be effective. But all indications are that many authoritarian regimes are using these security concerns to get the international community to rubber-stamp their crackdowns on freedom of expression, information and news.
In fact, the idea of the information society summit quietly harks back to what was known in the 1970s and the 1980s as the New World Information Order, when a rag-bag alliance of communist regimes, African and Asian despots and Western Third-Worldist intellectuals used the presence of an African at the head of UNESCO to try to bring the flow of international news under the control of governments, officially (of course) for the benefit of the people.
They said the world’s news was dominated by the corporate media of the capitalist West and aimed to rein them in, leaving ordinary people in ignorance. It reeked of the old totalitarian notion of the “supreme guide” who knows better than you what’s good for you. The whole repressive concept led the United States and Britain to withdraw from UNESCO. This was enough of a jolt to kill off the idea.
Today, these same dark forces are now speaking up again, this time about freedom of the Internet, the inviolability of borders, respect for the standards and values of each society, national security and unity, and undermining law and order. But we have long known that in many countries, these apparently innocent principles serve daily as excuses for prosecution and harsh punishment of those who, at home and abroad, put out news that goes against the official line.
As well as this annual survey, Reporters Without Borders is publishing a review of the obstacles already put up by about 50 countries to the free flow of information on the Internet. We and other press freedom organisations will watch very carefully to see if the information society summit, despite its good intentions, makes this situation worse.
It is no accident that China, which has imposed very tight control over its citizens’ access to the Internet, has been leading a drive at the summit preparatory meetings against the original intention to give civil society a say at the summit through recognised NGOs.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN agency organising the summit, is making little apparent effort to resist the drive to exclude civil society. It has created a website where NGOs can discuss the information society among themselves and to lead this parallel debate it has even set up a “civil society bureau.” But the summit itself will clearly be a strictly government-level affair.
Most disturbing of all is the manifest reluctance of most Western democracies to confront head-on the machinations of these enemies of freedom of information and news. The 11 September attacks have left the United States in the security-obsessed grip of a patriotic war on terrorism and the country no longer even makes a pretence that human rights are very important in its foreign policy. Repressive nations such as Russia, China and Pakistan have become its necessary allies.
The Europeans, strongly represented in the upper echelons of the ITU, apparently made no objection when a Arab group of countries bartered their support for re-election of the ITU’s Japanese secretary-general in exchange for Tunis being the site of the second session of the summit.
But it was ominous, since Tunisia is one of the handful of countries that imprisons cyber-dissidents. Last summer, Zouhair Yahyaoui was arrested and sent to prison for two years for “putting out false news.” He had simply posted information about the opposition on his website. In Tunis, that amounts to treason.