Who Should Care if Reporters Are Harassed? You.

Experts said this situation underscores the importance of press freedoms, not only in America, but around the world.

"You cannot make good policy without good information," said Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Unnecessary Roughness

Many journalists are warning, as Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham did this month, against using the war on terror as "a pretext for repression."

In November, a Pew Research Poll of Americans found that half of the respondents felt the military should exert more control over news about the war, and 40 percent thought the media should decide how to report it.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, editor of Thailand's The Nation, one of the most influential dailies in Southeast Asia, said similar circumstances exist in his country, traditionally home to one of the freest presses in the region.

Thailand was recently the focus of media criticism after it threatened to expel two journalists from the Far Eastern Economic Review for reporting on poor relations between the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Chongkittavorn said the prime minister has tightened his grip on the press in a quest for absolute power, and that he has been encouraged by Washington's interest in having Thai cooperation in the war on terror.

The government has begun rewarding friendly publications with advertising revenue, and withholding it from unfriendly ones, Chongkittavorn said.

Chongkittavorn added that the prime minister has tried to buy media outlets, attacked the credibility of prominent journalists he didn't like, and withheld access to himself and certain government officials from some publications he didn't like.

"Thailand for the first time is making Malaysia and Burma feel at home," he said.

Malaysia and Burma are notoriously press-unfriendly countries. Since 1984, Malaysia has required journalists to get licenses annually. Because they must pass the scrutiny of the government every year, such a policy in effect compels journalists there to self-censor.

In Burma, the government is extremely sensitive to bad news and criticism. Something as harmless as an anti-government joke can lead to summary imprisonment.

Dangerous Precedent

The new confidence in state-controlled media has myriad dangerous consequences, many journalists said.

The press' job is to expose corruption, they said. But when there are handicaps on an independent press, corruption is allowed to thrive.

As a result, "there is so much disappointment, so much frustration that people turn to terrorism and all kinds of desperate acts," Sebhai said.

In Pakistan, journalists are prohibited from covering allegations of corruption involving the military, Sehbai said, — even though the military has provided the bulk of Pakistan's leaders for the 50-plus years of its existence.

And when these rules are violated, there are huge prices to be paid. Sehbai still remembers what happened when one of his chief reporters decided to go ahead with a report on a general: He was "taken from his car, and beaten blue and black with jackboot marks all over his shoulders," Sehbai said.

Extreme Examples

When state controls on the press are taken to an extreme, the results can be ridiculous.

In notoriously insular North Korea, on Sept. 12, the day after what many journalists consider the biggest story in their lifetimes, "America in great panic" was only the second story reported.

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