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Home > Media

Free As A Bird (In A Cage)

7 May 2006

This Wednesday saw World Press Freedom Day, a UN-backed initiative raising awareness of censorship, hate media and the denial of free speech to half the world's population. For one day a year, we remember the 125 journalists in prison around the world, and the twelve media workers killed in the pursuit of their jobs so far in 2006. For the other 364, it's up to you.

We at The Friday Thing know first-hand how other countries interpret 'freedom of the press'. We have, on our travels, been party to a right old shoeing from stick-wielding representatives of the official censors in a number of countries, whose records on this issue are hardly exemplary.

In fact, we were as surprised as the next human rights organisation when the UN themselves selected Tunisia as the venue for the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, standing 177th out of 194 in the Freedom House table of global press freedom. As it happened, the highlight of our Tunis jaunt was a meeting organised by the local press rights group, which just happened to be double-booked with the Tunis Police's riot squad self-help seminar on the uses of big sticks with nails through the end.

With our previous war-zone experiences weighing heavily on our minds (another right old shoeing, and people firing genuine hurty bullets at us as we plugged 'La Chose De Vendredi' somewhere in Africa), we did what any self-respecting hack would do under the circumstances: we ran away clutching our precious press pass to our pigeon-like chest, and filed a story from the safety of Gatwick Airport.

In this country, press freedom means many things. The freedom to say what we like (within the limits of defamation laws); the freedom to question, investigate and report in the public interest, even if it is only the activities of wonky-faced Chantelle and her D-List buddies; and, of course, the freedom to publish an enormous pair of norks on page three of The Sun. You know, the important stuff.

The UK is 31st in the global press freedom ranking. That's right. Thirty-first, behind those giants of press freedom Lithuania, Estonia and ...erm... the United States, a country which jailed journalist Judith Miller in 2005 for refusing to name her sources in the Valerie Plame affair, and is sixth in the world for its record of jailing media workers.

Our relatively high - yet slowly slipping - status in the Premier League of press freedom is not surprising, but faced with a government keen on preserving its self-image at almost any cost, now would be the time for the utmost vigilance. We have already seen a BBC hobbled by the unsurprisingly establishment outcome of Hutton; and now that, in Tony's own words, 'the rules of the game have changed', he might want to go out and change the rules himself. Like, for example, ban the 'glorifying' of terrorism, a challenge to the freedom of expression if ever there was one.

Censoring the press starts with all kinds of good intentions to protect society. But pretty soon, doing it for good is all the excuse Dear Leader needs to do it for bad, and soon after that you have perfectly honest writers filling prison cells for saying how nice it might be if we elected a new government. Or even had elections. In many countries, this has already happened.

And because we've made such a great job of encouraging a free press in other countries, we have to ask the question - are we complicit in stifling the press abroad, either through encouragement or inaction?

Following our enormous victory in Iraq (157th on the Freedom House table and sinking fast), the opportunity to set up a full and fair press was utterly destroyed by an insurgency that makes Iraq the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. Twenty-three died in the last year alone, either at the hands of insurgents, or whoops there goes another air-to-surface missile right down the throat of that Al-Arabiya camera crew. That'll learn them.

Things may have been bad under Saddam, but you could argue that the present alternative of our own making is not much better. There is no press law, and while there has been an explosion of both print and broadcast media, it is horribly sectarian, with even the state-owned Iraqiyah network showing a clear bias. And then, America has been caught paying to plant fake news in the press to its enormous, not to mention expensive, embarrassment.

We'll also do our very best to completely ignore any of that nasty censorship business in other countries. Uzbekistan (187th) wasn't exactly our finest hour, and there are still news editors doing unpleasant porridge for suggesting, perhaps, that the country might benefit from a new leader. Similarly, we were hardly rushing to the aid of the Nepalese (168th), as a clearly mental absolute ruler banned all news from the nation's radios. And then there's China.

Ahhhhh, China. 177th in the world. A country that wants its own capitalist miracle, but without all that inconvenient human rights business that goes with it. Where Yahoo turns over its logs to the authorities to jail dissidents. Where a state-owned party magazine is closed and its editor removed for criticising government policy. The West's biggest import/export customer. Ah.

Freedom of expression is for everybody, everywhere. Not just when it suits us, and not conveniently forgotten when political, commercial, military interests get in the way. There must be no other alternative.

Top of the press freedom list? Finland, Iceland and Denmark, who just happen to have the least funny political cartoons, judged least likely to cause world-wide riots. Oh.

[Final paragraph had to go. Can we come up with something less likely to get us firebombed, please? That would be nice. Thanks.]

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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