MMBlog

Friday, July 13, 2007

Freedom of Speech is life and death

Note: Something very near verbatim of the following two articles appeared in a special summer '07 edition of LareDOS in Laredo, Texas after some copies of the publication were temporarily removed from public buildings. Read more online at www.laredosnews.com.

By MIKE McILVAIN

Freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, to journalists in many parts of the world is a matter of life and death.
A journalist well inside America’s interior might be able to take that freedom for granted, but not those working along the border with Mexico and familiar with that government’s system of controlling the amount of printing paper a newspaper might receive. The Mexican dilemma is mild compared to some other parts of the world where journalists are targeted for death because they dare to print, or broadcast, the truth, or something someone in some sort of power might disagree with or dislike.
Some journalists have been killed in Mexico with the drug situation heightening danger and violence across the border, but others are more frequently dying elsewhere simply because they want to tell the truth.
Hotspots like the Middle East and Africa are and continue to be a danger zone for journalists.
Beirut, Lebanon-based CNN journalist Anthony Mills said that country appears to be the freest in the Middle East, but it’s a deceiving appearance.
Mills has lived in Lebanon for some six years and is seen occasionally on televised reports from Beirut. He said it’s what you don’t see in the fight for freedom to express thoughts or to run a story that the public should know more about.
“Over the last two years or so two journalists have been killed here, and one had part of her arm and part of her leg blown off,” Mills said by e-mail. “Why? Because they refused to bow to threats of violence and intimidation.
“The Middle East as a whole has a pretty poor record of press freedom.”
Mills said journalists exhibiting any courage in Lebanon are in grave danger. Mills, a native of Luxembourg, knew one of the two murdered journalists, Gebran Tueni, personally.
“I’d interviewed him a couple of times in the last five months before he was blown up,” Mills said. “He knew he was on an assassination list. I asked him if he was afraid of dying and his response was defiance in the face of threat.
“That’s courage and it underscores the importance these guys attached to press freedom.”
Mills also noted May Chidiac who lived, despite a car bomb blast. Chidiac spent a year in a Paris hospital, but she returned to Beirut to continue broadcasting.
“That, too, is courage, but the other two voices have been silenced forever, and debate in Lebanon is the poorer for their departure,” Mills said.
Washington, D.C.-based Arabic news analyst Natasha Tynes, originally from Jordan, worked for a paper and Web site in Amman before meeting future husband Jeff and moving to the U.S., but still carries part of the Middle East with her.
Including the fear.
“Due to the lack of freedom of speech in the Middle East, journalists also face self censorship. Their coverage lacks any edge because they are always worried about crossing the red lines and challenging taboos,” she said by e-mail. “As a journalist from the Middle East, I find myself censoring my work on a daily basis. Fear is my worst enemy.”
Yemen television journalist Akram Al Hindi gives the right to free speech a 10 on a scale of one to 10.
“Freedom of speech in today's world is one of the basic human rights,” Al Hindi said by e-mail. “No one in this accelerating world can ignore this fact. The principle of freedom of speech is one of the most important rights any person, not just journalists, should fight for. This right to speak and express your ideas and thoughts had helped a lot of nations to achieve a lot and to change a number of negative things whether in society, government, or even in countries.”
Al Hindi pointed to the example of Martin Luther King who accomplished much in the Civil Rights Movement through his “I Have a Dream” speech.
“This dream today is a reality and this shows how well educated people, who are equipped with the right to speak, have achieved their dreams,” he said.
French La Montagne reporter Bertrand Yvernault, based in Clermont-Ferrand, said the relationship between reporters and politicians there is too close, which serves to block some information – in some cases.
“We journalists are very close with representatives, mayors and all kinds of elected people,” Yvernault said by e-mail. “They provide us with us with some very interesting information and hide others. It’s not really censorship -- more of the wrong side of being too friendly with politicians.”
Yvernault noted that this relationship cuts two ways. Quarreling with one office holder might be a mistake, but it might be worth the fight with another.
“Some nasty ones go straight to the newspaper’s owner or director to complain that they have been ‘ill-treated’ by a journalist,” he said. “It could lead to self-censorship.”
Yvernault believes self-censorship could be worse than that imposed by a government.
Jack Zeller, New York-based president of Kulanu, a global Jewish organization, sees the press, basic rights, and governments from a unique – almost hidden - perspective.
Many things we see, Zeller is able to see in other ways through reports to the organization Web site and his personal observations around the world.
“Many African countries that have democratically elected governments do not have freedom of press or speech,” he said by e-mail. “Historically there has been a dissociation. Americans assume that democracy brings human rights, minority rights, freedom of expression, property rights and so on. It is not true.”
Zeller noted that Hitler won a fair election in Germany in 1932 and put together a coalition government, which included critical support from the Catholic Church. He also said nowadays the U.S. press rarely covers human rights violations in Russia because it is lazy and pre-occupied with entertainment news.
“My own immediate experience is with African countries. Self censorship is the rule if you want to stay alive,” Zeller said. “It is also a good rule if you want to stay in business and not annoy the florid corruption of the non-government organization that operates there. There is a wide spectrum of censorship short of killing journalists.”
Solana Larsen, a New York-based editor for London-headquartered Opendemocracy.com, said numerous intimidators and authorities that would act against free speech could be found closer than we would like, too.
“Even people who profess to be for freedom of speech will quickly
forget it when it isn't convenient for them,” Larsen said in an e-mail. “In America we come down hard on foreign governments who limit freedom of speech, but sometimes fail to respond to it when it happens right in front of our noses. You don't have to put someone in jail to stop them from communicating.”
London-based journalist and New York native Norm Guthartz wasn’t too happy to learn of recent actions here in which copies of LareDOS were yanked from the airport and other public buildings. Papers being pulled is the sort of incident that frequently precedes other harsher censorship and violent actions in much less freer countries.
Guthartz has worked in the U.S., Israel, and Europe and places the highest priority on the freedoms of speech and of the press.
“It is the one freedom which Americans are supposed to be absolutely sure of. It’s the one that U.S. governments keep pushing as the prime benefit of having democracy foisted on them,” Guthartz said by e-mail on June 13. “Sure, there’s the old saw, ‘Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one,’ But here is a case of government blocking what people can read, trying to control their access to information, telling them how to think, requiring that they abrogate their responsibility as citizens to be willfully unaware of the functioning of their government.”
Guthartz advised making sure that would-be readers at the airport get their next copy of LareDOS.
“Send out staffers and volunteers to stand at the entrance to the airport and hand out free copies of the magazine to every carload of people entering (or leaving, for that matter),” he said. “Promote the free flow of ideas.”

Additional comments too late for initial publication –

Haaruun Hasssan, a native of Somalia, and London resident –
In Mogadishu where I have been, the Somali government has been conducting harassment and detention of journalists and closing down media organisations. These are journalists who have really strife for freedom of speech in a country where there is no law and order.
In March, a journalist was detained by the spokesman of the President [himself a former journalist]. Reason: He was asked questions he did not like. The journalist was released after 46 days in detention without charge.
I must tell say to you, this journalist was very lucky. He could have been killed – as Somalia is a lawless country.
Many journalists dare ask tough questions these days – Somali journalists are working in fear. They value freedom of speech very much.
It is very important for every society to get independent thought and analysis. Especially at this age when info is key to life.
On a scale of 1 – 10, I would rate freedom of speech on 9!

And Jonathan Blundell, a former journalist living in Waxahachie, Texas -- I really think the power of the press comes from freedom of speech and the first amendment and the press could not function without it. But on the other side of the coin, there are times that I think First Amendment rights should be limited as well. I don't have any answers as to how or where or when but when you hear stories about possible terrorist attacks and people using software like Google Earth to plan out their attacks, or newspapers printing information about certain political/war strategies, I have to wonder if that's really in the best interest of the general public.
I feel the best societies are open societies were information is exchanged freely but in this new society that also means that information is just as readily available to those we wish to keep it from the most.

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