The right to a free press | Globalization | DW | 20.06.2011
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The right to a free press

Freedom of the press is crucial to revealing human rights abuses. It ensures that grievances can be discussed publicly.

The word 'press' on a sign with in the center of a set of crosshairs

Journalists are needed was government watchdogs

Everyone knows that there is no such thing as freedom without the freedom of the press.

Autocrats and dictators harass journalists in a bid to hold onto the reins of power. They want to make sure that only their version of the truth and their opinions alone reach the public.

Democratic structures cannot develop if the press lacks freedom, nor can debates about political alternatives or disputes between the government and opposition. In states where the press is not free, civil society and non-governmental organizations cannot exert influence on official politics.

Algerian media outlets

Algerian law imposes heavy fines and prison terms for what it calls journalistic "offences"

There isn't any freedom without freedom of the press. Without a free press in a position to scrutinize the powers that be, it's possible for a government to curb personal rights without anyone finding out about it. Autocrats ban demonstrations and then make it impossible to protest against the bans, as we have seen in Syria.

Authorities also violate the right of human beings to physical integrity. This is, for example, the case in Chinese provinces where industries are destroying the environment yet news of this destruction never even reaches the capital Beijing.

More to the press than printing opinions

Freedom of the press is the traditional term applied to the human right "to inform and to be informed." But recent events in Iran and the Arab world show that nowadays this freedom encompasses much more than merely protecting the printed press.

Satellite television stations like Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and others proved the most effective medium for breaking through the information blockade implemented by ruling dynasties and autocrats. Despite censors, they showed viewers in around the world a reality other than that broadcast by state-controlled national television stations.

For the young generation behind the demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, social media like Facebook and Twitter are crucial for communication. Active citizenship and civil society need more than the freedom of the press - they need the freedom of the media in a much broader sense.

Tunisian paper

Tunisia's media landscape is freer after the fall of the authoritarian regime

Easier to thwart censors nowadays

The coexistence of a variety of new and old media makes it easier to overcome censorship because there are more opportunities for active citizenship than ever before.

This range of media means that everyone can find a way of participating in democratic processes - or demand them if they are not in place already - in accordance with their age, technical skills, preferences and access.

If the regime in Egypt blocks cell phones one day, satellite television provides information and if there is no reception for Al Jazeera in Cairo another day, demonstrators on Tahrir Square tweet to each other.

In the end, nothing remained but for the Mubarak regime to withdraw because the majority of the army command was not prepared to use violence against the demonstrators.

Support those fighting overpowering opponents

Turkish journalists march in protest

Turkish journalists march to protest the threats to media freedom in Turkey

But it's a different story altogether in Libya. In the areas where Moammar Gadhafi and his mercenaries engage in open war with insurgents and employ brutality against them, the freedom of the media is not sufficient to push through other democratic freedoms.

Those fighting for the freedom of the press, media and information are up against overpowering opponents who have weapons, prisons, administrative chicanery and compliant judges at their disposal.

We need to counter this with staying power. By helping the individual victims who are threatened or detained and pulling out all the stops when it comes to putting domestic and international pressure on those who would limit media freedoms.

Author: Michael Rediske / mm
Editor: Sean Sinico

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