Press freedom under pressure

It’s World Press Freedom Day, and my guess is that most Americans don’t have a clue. The day was set aside by the United Nations 15 years ago to raise awareness of the importance of a free press and to honor journalists who take tremendous risks to tell stories their governments don’t want people to hear. That job is tougher than ever, according to the annual press freedom survey from Freedom House:

The current edition of the survey, Freedom of the Press 2008, points to declines on a global scale in 2007, with particularly worrisome trends evident in the former Soviet Union, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. The findings mark the sixth straight year of deterioration in the level of press freedom worldwide.

The Committee to Protect Journalists marked World Press Freedom Day by issuing its first-ever “impunity index” of countries where journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and governments are unable or unwilling to prosecute the killers. It’s no surprise that Iraq was the most dangerous country for journalists in 2007 and has the most unsolved murders of journalists. But consider this:

Most countries on the Impunity Index are democratic, are not at war, and have functioning law enforcement institutions, yet journalists are regularly targeted for murder and no one is held accountable.

Reporters without Borders issued a report on violence against journalists in Europe, a part of the world where “media express a diversity of opinion and a pluralism of ideas is generally assured.”

But the situation is not perfect for all that. Threats made against journalists, murder attempts by private groups, assaults, intimidation of families are all among the very serious risks run today within Europe.

It’s sad that most American journalists and news organizations will let World Press Freedom Day pass unnoticed. Yes, the U.S. constitution guarantees press freedom, but that doesn’t mean all is well here at home, where access to information continues to be restricted. As the New York Times editorialized last summer, the Bush administration “has disdained openness and accountability since its first days. That is about the only thing it does not hide.”

Editor & Publisher’s Mark Fitzgerald argues forcefully that this year of all years, U.S. news organizations should pay attention to press freedom, especially in China, where more journalists are jailed than in any other country.

If U.S. media companies expect to make big money from the Beijing Olympics — and they do — they have the responsibility to fight China’s oppression of journalists.

That’s not just the responsibility of media organizations. All journalists have to stand up for press freedom at home and abroad, and speak out when any journalist, anywhere is kept from doing his or her job. And we must make it clear to the public that the central problem is not really what happens to journalists; It’s what happens to democracy when press freedom is suppressed. Because a truly free press can only exist in a democratic system, and a democracy can’t survive without the oxygen of a free press.