Freedom House has issued its annual report on global press freedom ahead of World Press Freedom Day. The current edition of the survey, Freedom of the Press 2008, highlights the sixth straight year of deterioration in the level of press freedom worldwide, with what Freedom House calls “particularly worrisome trends evident in the former Soviet Union, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.”
(For the record, Freedom House, according to its mission statement, "is an independent nongovernmental organization that supports the expansion of freedom in the world. Freedom is possible only in democratic political systems in which the governments are accountable to their own people; the rule of law prevails; and freedoms of expression, association, and belief, as well as respect for the rights of minorities and women, are guaranteed.")
It should come as no surprise to anyone that we at VOA support press freedom and the freedom of expression. We note it was President John F. Kennedy who said, “A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”
Our news often reaches into countries whose governments try to control the media. We agree with President Ronald Reagan who likened this activity to providing people with life-sustaining air: “Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire, it wafts across the electrified borders.”
What do we get out of this? For the answer to that, we have only to recall the words of one of this country’s founding fathers, James Madison. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”
It doesn’t matter whether the information we transmit reaches audiences by TV, radio, the Internet, cellphone or other means.
“What matters to the quality of democracy is the quality of independent, honest, accurate, journalism, not the means by which it is distributed. Communication is what is fundamental.”
Those words were spoken not by former President or a founding father but a current-day news executive: Michael Oreskes, Executive Editor of the International Herald Tribune.
Speaking last year at the Online News Association convention in Toronto, Canada, he reminded his audience of what it is all reporters and editors should be doing if they aspire to quality journalism:
“We are the independent observers of the world, who go places our audiences can’t go, dig where our audiences can’t dig, study and interpret what our audiences do not have time to study and interpret. And we do all this with no agenda other than to help our audiences understand the world.”
It sounds altruistic. But, interestingly, there might be a pay-off.
As Oreskes noted in his address, a scholar at the London School of Economics has actually charted the relationship between journalism and democracy. For example, as press freedom goes up, so does national income per person. Similarly, as press freedom goes up, corruption goes down. In short, countries with a free press are better off.
One other thought: in recent years, we have seen a trend, usually attributed to survey results, in which many news organizations, including some VOA services, increasingly “localize” their news content, often at the expense of news from elsewhere in the world.
But as Editor Oreskes notes, the distinction between “domestic” and “international” news is now more blurred than at any time in the past. There are links between almost everything everywhere. Just consider the current global food and fuel crises, not to mention environmental problems.
Only by telling audiences what is happening in other parts of the planet, and explaining why, can we truly fulfill our responsibility to help them understand what may be happening right in their own backyards.
(For background on World Press Freedom Day, go here.)