Opinion: Thriving Democracies Depend on a Free Press

A letter to the editor by State Senator Joe Simitian

By Joe Simitian--

In Syria, two photojournalists were killed.  In Pakistan, a magazine editor was tortured and murdered. Two investigators, one in Brazil and one in Peru, both looking into the murder of journalists, were gunned down.

All in one week in April, the International Press Institute (IPI) reported.

May 3 is World Press Freedom Day, established by a United Nations proclamation in 1993. The California Legislature has unanimously passed a resolution, which I authored, to recognize this day, which honors those who have sacrificed their lives, and those who continue to risk their lives, in pursuit of a right that we in the United States too often take for granted.

While the idea of a free press is deeply ingrained in American society, across the world,   courageous journalists are subject to censorship, shutdowns, deportation, imprisonment, torture and death. This year, according to IPI, at least 43 journalists have lost their lives in the course of their work.

“We are witnessing, by a significant margin, the deadliest start to a year for the media in recent memory,” IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie said in a statement after Easter weekend, when three journalists were killed.  “As movements for democracy spread across the world, journalists – whose work is critical to any free society – are increasingly coming under violent attack.”

War-torn countries are especially perilous. IPI rates Syria the most dangerous country for journalists in the world. But threats to press freedom take many forms in different countries.

In Ethiopia, the government has jailed five journalists, labeling them as terrorists because they have investigated or criticized the current government. Likewise, Turkey has put nearly 100 journalists behind bars, using anti-terror laws. In Brazil, where seven journalists have been killed in 2011 and 2012, IPI reports that “journalists working outside the centers of federal power continue to be targeted by drug cartels, powerful local politicians, and others who fear the consequences of investigative reporting.” 

Yet brave men and women continue to risk their lives. Their reasons are an inspiration to those of us living in societies where free expression is protected; and, all too often, taken for granted.

Tawakkol Karman, a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, and an activist for press freedom in Yemen, had this to say to WAN-IFRA, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, about the meaning of a free press. Freedom of expression is the right that the youth of the Arab Spring used to commence their revolutions.”  A free press “is both the means and the goal of any change: In the absence of a free press, there is no democracy.”

Anabel Hernández, who has reported extensively on the power of drug cartels in Mexico, told WAN-IFRA why journalists must persevere. “By keeping quiet, we -- the Mexican journalism community -- endorse the violence, the impunity and the loathsome corruption that is strangling our nation. If we remain silent we kill freedom, justice and the possibility that a society armed with information may have the power to change the situation that has brought us to this point.”

Freedom House, a nonprofit organization with consultant status at the United Nations, finds that press freedom is declining around the world, and that only 15 percent of the world population lives in a country with a truly free press.

Rights are strengthened by exercising them. World Press Freedom Day reminds us that democracies, whether they are struggling to come into being, or have a longstanding history, depend for their survival on the rights of a free press and freedom of expression, and those who boldly assert them. Spread the word.

State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) represents the 11th Senate District, and is the author of Senate Joint Resolution 22 commemorating May 3 as ‘World Press Freedom Day.’

Mark Weiss May 01, 2012 at 08:40 PM
In Palo Alto our local press are free but significantly compromised by their relationships with the real estate industries, commercial and residential. I would rather pay 25 cents and have fewer ads. A good film on the overall diminution of the Fourth Estate is "Page One" by Andrew Rossi, which screened at the Palo Alto Film Festival and would be great to show again here. Or read Bagdikian "Media Monopoly" or Chomsky "Manufacturing Consent."


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