Press Freedom – Fact, Fiction or Irony?

Can you imagine that we have newspapers that do not place any importance about an event that celebrates PRESS FREEDOM?

By Masterwordsmith

This is the 16th year that the United Nations has commemorated World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd. In a statement marking the day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that a free press played an important roll in solving the world's problems and gave a voice to minorities and also called on all governments to ensure that the rights of journalists are respected.

In his message for World Press Freedom Day 2009, the Director-General of UNESCO, Koïchiro Matsuura, stressed: “We must strengthen our efforts to build a media that is critical of inherited assumptions yet tolerant of alternative perspectives; a media that brings competing narratives into a shared story of interdependence; a media that responds to diversity through dialogue.” (extracted from UNESCO.ORG.)

All this sounds so idealistic, dreamy, perfect and Utopian in its approach but what is the real reason why the UN commemorated World Press Freedom Day?

To me, this whole notion reminds us of one simple fact – the vital importance of this core freedom in any democratic country. Ideally, this should be the day in which citizens of every democratic country celebrate the vital and indispensable role played by journalists in reporting news, providing a platform for discussion and exposing abuses of power while fulfilling the other functions of a newspaper.

Tall order, some may say. True – which is the reason for the title of this post – PRESS FREEDOM – FACT, FICTION OR IRONY?

Some of us may overlook the fact that as far back as 1948, many nations enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights the fundamental principle that everyone “has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

I find it both tragic and ironic that such rights are most subjective in many democratic countries. While there are leaders who are autocratic in limiting such freedom, others waltz around gleefully in spinning yarn about how freedom of expression exists provided one behaves himself or worse still, fanning the fires of denial and pulling wool over the eyes of the masses in waving their magic wand to redefine the meaning of freedom, or using the carrot and stick policy via licenses to ensure that those concerned conform to official expectations regarding what is or is not to be reported.

Can you imagine that this important news has not been featured in The Star or The New Straits Times? Can you imagine that we have newspapers that do not place any importance about an event that celebrates PRESS FREEDOM? No wonder….

Beyond the cosmetic and token speeches of celebration for this supposedly important day in other countries, we need to ask ourselves if we have a government that believes in the effective and accurate dissemination of information and remains deeply committed to the freedom of the press.

We need to consider whether our government understands and appreciates the responsibilities of the media and the fact that these responsibilities can only be fulfilled through the freedom of the press, which in turn, is guaranteed by our democratic government committed to upholding the Constitution. But to do that, there has to be a sustained democratic government that can guarantee civil rights and liberties. Is it possible?

True blue journalists investigate sensitive issues, unveil disturbing truths and question policies and in doing so, find themselves in the firing line of those directly or indirectly exposed by their reports. What does that mean? I do not have to bring up a certain incident where one young lady who reported a statement made by someone was detained under a certain law to 'protect her'. And how has this affected the way journalists/reporters report news?

Nonetheless, even though some journalists face harassment, threats of violence and physical retaliation, these unsung heroes across the world continue to dig out troubling facts, challenge the status quo and expose those who commit crimes.

Day after day, there exist genuine, committed and dedicated journalists who would go the extra mile to investigate and file reports on issues they know they could be sued or killed for such as Moussa Kaka, Mohamad Ali Al-Abdallah (Syrian blogger), Barry Bearak (USA) and Claudia Duque of Columbia. Many pay the price, some with their lives.

Does press freedom exist in Malaysia? Dr. Azly Rahman wrote an excellent article on Death of Malaysian media at> THIS LINK and I would greatly urge you to read it if you have not.

Ideally, in any country that supposedly practises democracy, there should be freedom of expression and freedom of the press. I believe there should be democracy in the mass media whereby the press practise mature journalistic principles to produce reports that inform and empower the members of society thereby enhancing democratic values in the country and enabling the citizens to be informed and in the know of current events!!

The public are the customers of the mainstream media so the latter should be accountable to the public in creating the democratic expression of truth of the events as seen in the society. Is this the case in Malaysia?Any news blackout in any democratic country indirectly shows the increased domination of that government over the mass media and the shrinking freedom of expression in that country. Some authorities may speak so much about reforming the mass media, establishing certain organizations and strengthening public service broadcasting. However if and when they do just the opposite, then the ones to suffer are the masses.

Theoretically, when the media dances to the tune of the authorities, media content would be SHARPLY INFLUENCED because the range of news and opinions would be limited, distorted and bias reporting would be more likely to occur. The MSM staff could be in a state of cognitive dissonance – torn between factual reporting and conforming to demands of the authorities. In time to come, would they be robbed not only of their ‘voice’ but also their ‘conscience’ when they cower to the demands and observe boundaries set by the authorities? Then they can all sail happily with the ruling government – in the boat populated by passengers with NO CONSCIENCE!

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