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World Press Day

May 3, 2008

Dictatorships around the world impose restrictions on press freedom as a way of resisting change, but as DW's Miodrag Soric points out on World Press Day, the Western world isn't beyond reproach either.


First the good news. Freshly minted Russian President Dimitri Medvedev has said he wants to see a stronger role for civil society and to boost the freedom of the Russian press -- maintaining that this is the only way to stem corruption and cut red tape. Now for the bad news. He also plans to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor Vladimir Putin, who tended to see electronic media as the long arm of the Kremlin.

He can't do both. Guaranteeing press freedom at the same time as controlling it is out of the question. Medvedev will have to make a decision. Ultimately, he will be judged by his deeds, not his words. And the 42-year-old president certainly deserves to be given a chance.

If Moscow does decide to lift restrictions on television reporting, the move will have repercussions for other countries, including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Belarus, where Russian television is also popular. A free press in Russia would put the media in other CIS countries under pressure. Medvedev's responsibilities therefore extend beyond Russia.

Authoritarian regimes across the world fear change, which is why they persecute independent reporters. The president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, clamps down on any journalist who speaks out about the country's economic devastation, its international isolation and disastrous leadership. Other dictators in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe operate the same way.

But on World Press Day, it is important to remember that the western world is not immune to these practices, either. The US administration is constantly trying to tighten its grip on the media, especially when it comes to talking up the military situation in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the German intelligence service is also treading a fine legal line when it uses the war on terror as an excuse to read journalists' mail.

Clearly, this cannot be compared to press persecution in Sudan, Myanmar and China. When the German secret service breaches existing laws and human rights, it faces the consequences in full view of the public. Both radio and television cover these incidents extensively, with democratically elected politicians appearing before investigative committees to explain how they could have happened, and secret service officials reprimanded or even fired. It's a different story with dictatorships, where the secret services work on behalf of the government when they go after the press.

Take China. Most people here cannot believe that in other countries, the press is free of state influence. When US and British reporters make mistakes in their coverage of the unrest in Tibet, Chinese users immediately suspect that the errors are symptomatic of a western conspiracy. They believe that the US and the EU resent China's economic boom, when it fact, the opposite is true -- the industrialized world can only benefit from a wealthier China and the vast new market is represents.

But what it true is that western journalists make errors, as they have done in their coverage of events in Tibet. But to assume this is evidence of an international vendetta against China points either to ignorance, an excessive sense of nationalism or an inferiority complex -- or a blend of all three. The Chinese public would be much better informed if the country enjoyed freedom of the press. But as in any dictatorship, the communists in Beijing are terrified of politically aware citizens, open discussion, criticism and press freedom. Change is the last thing they want. After all, they want to stay in power.

Miodrag Soric is DW-RADIO's editor-in-chief (jp)

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