Wednesday, May 3, 2017

World Press Freedom Day 2017: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

"Th newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward". -   Mr. Dooley ( Finley Peter Dunne), 1902

On World Press Freedom Day the map of press freedom prepared by Reporters Without Borders is bleak with a darkening tide of censorship across the globe. Despite having a First Amendment to the Constitution that protects free speech and freedom of the press the United States today has 43 countries ahead of it with greater press freedoms.  This confirms the observation of the late conservative polemicist Joseph Sobran, who passed away in 2010 that “the U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government.” It gives me no comfort to be able to say, but hey Cuba, our next door neighbor, is at 173 much less free then the USA. As a citizen and a patriot this is one list that if not number one, the United States should strive to be in the top ten. It has not been there for some time. The ten most censored countries in the world according to the Committee to Protect Journalists are also terrible places to live not only for journalists but everyday people.

A free press is a benchmark of a free society that needs to be celebrated and defended from both  external and internal threats to its good works. Since it is a free institution, it must be self-policing and only answer to its customers on the basis of the quality of the journalism.

The ten countries with the greatest press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, in contrast do not have refugee exodus crises, even as is the case with Costa Rica (6) and Jamaica (8) they are not materially the richest countries but they are free peoples.

Today is a day to honor courageous and professional journalists who take their work seriously, but are willing to poke fun at themselves as Finley Peter Dunne did 115 years ago. It is an ironic tribute that his skewering of the self-important news media has been edited down and turned into a challenge to some journalists to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." On this day let us comfort journalists afflicted for practicing their trade in closed societies.

The Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, better known as Me Na or "Mother Mushroom" has been detained since October 2016 while trying to visit an imprisoned activist. She stands accused of "propagandizing against the state."  

Let us also recognize Nguyen Van Hoa, a 22 year old video journalist jailed for using a drone to broadcast environmental protests in Vietnam.

In Venezuela on the evening of May 1, 2017 Marcos Vergara and Deivis Valera, production assistants for the online media platform VivoPlay were taken into the custody of the Venezuelan National Guard while covering a protest, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Please spread the world and demand their freedom.

Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, journalists for Al Jazeera who were arrested in Egypt in 2013, writing today in The Australian warn that a "tragedy is unfolding in Turkey. Independent journalism is being systematically stamped out. Prison doors are slamming, media outlets are being boarded up and a disturbing silence is falling over what has been a vibrant and ­diverse media landscape."

Be not silent before this atrocity against freedom.

George Orwell well understood that "Freedom of the press if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose." He also understood what was not only "fake news" but also fake language and called it "newspeak" in his novel 1984. 

We must recognize that there are hacks that can due great and lasting damage peddling "fake news" working in free newspapers. The ghosts of Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews continue to possess the Gray Lady with their enduring and shameful legacies in Ukraine and Cuba. Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer covering up Stalin's 1930s manufactured famine in Ukraine that claimed eight to 10 million lives. With his reports denying the reality all around him this New York Times journalist was complicit in genocide. Twenty years later in Cuba Herbert Matthews engaged in a fallacious propaganda campaign disguised as news reporting to turn Fidel Castro into a national figure presenting him as an anti-communist and a democrat. The total number of dead  is still being added to 58 years later for the lies he reported in the 1950s.

However this hacks are small time purveyors of fake news compared to governments that manufacture entire news agencies, black mail journalists with the threat of expulsion.  The way to counter fake news is with more press freedom to challenge it along with greater reader discernment to weigh the facts and seek the truth. Facts matter, recognizing objective truth exists and getting the story right regardless of agendas is the best way to serve readers.

Believing the government can be dangerous to your freedom. President Ronald Reagan said it best, "trust but verify." He applied that to his dealings with the Russians, but it should be expanded when dealing with all governments.

However the threats to a free press are not only state actors, but also technology and artificial intelligence that threatens to simulate writing and overwhelm the net with inferior prose designed to push an agenda or a product and not inform a readership is a future threat. However, an ever present threat today thanks to the greed of Western technology companies such as Yahoo, Sun Microsystems, Google and others that helped erect the Great Fire Wall of China. Modernizing totalitarianism and giving it new life into the 21st Century. Google is now collaborating with the Cuban intelligence service and military allowing them to store their servers. This means that journalists can write their articles but no one will be able to find them in their online searches. Russia is also now adopting their own version of the great fire wall. This is also a profound threat to press freedom.

The belief that legitimacy is no longer found in objective truth but in "positive results" has proven a destructive meme in schools of journalism that in the final analysis rejects reality as a social construct are bearing fruit in declining readership and sales.

These are great challenges but can be overcome if confronted and resisted.


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