SOLOMON: Freedom of the Press: Don't Take It for Granted

In early 1898, the French novelist Emile Zola wrote an open letter disputing the false -- but widely believed -- charges against an army captain named Dreyfus. "My duty is to speak," Zola insisted. "I have no wish to be an accomplice." Within a few weeks, he was in jail.A century later, men and women in many countries are still facing imprisonment, physical attacks and even death for daring to engage in independent journalism.When it comes to muzzling the press, the planet's hall of shame is crowded. According to a report just issued by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the worst offenders include the governments of Albania, Belarus, Burma, China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey.The Committee's 443-page report, "Attacks on the Press in 1997," makes for plenty of grim reading. The cultural contexts and political ideologies certainly vary, but many regimes share a common thread: They want to prevent freedom of expression because it might undermine their power.Last year ended with at least 129 journalists behind bars for doing their jobs. Around the globe, another 26 people were murdered during 1997 because of their journalistic activities.Turkey leads the world in a disgraceful category: At last count, 29 journalists were in Turkish jails. Turkey's government has subjected media professionals to "arbitrary detention and trial for expression of unfavorable political opinions," the Committee to Protect Journalists says.Meanwhile, as the Committee documents, the most populous nation on Earth continues to suffer the dire effects of a totalitarian grip on the news media. "The release from prison and forced exile of dissident writer Wei Jingsheng (in November) did nothing to ease conditions for the press in China, where 15 journalists remain in prison, newspapers are tightly controlled and the Internet is censored."In several Latin American countries, journalists were caught between violent assaults and legalistic reprisals during the past year, the Committee reports:* "In Colombia, where four journalists were murdered, the weakened government of Ernesto Samper extends its influence through control of television and radio licenses."* "In Mexico, although three journalists were murdered for reporting on the drug trade, threat of prosecution under Mexico's arcane 1917 libel law remains a more immediate concern than the possibility of violent attack."* "Journalists in Peru say the country's National Intelligence Service has launched a campaign of legal action and terror to keep them from damaging re-election prospects of President Alberto Fujimori."* The plight of independent journalists is also serious in Cuba, where the government controls every media outlet. "Although the methods of repression are not as violent in Cuba as elsewhere in Latin America -- no journalist has been murdered in Cuba in the last decade -- the effect is the same. Journalists who publish outside Cuba can be prosecuted for a variety of crimes, from defamation to aiding the enemy."In the United States, pronouncements about the tremendous importance of freedom of the press easily turn into platitudes. Defined as the absence of overt legal restrictions, press liberty is flourishing in this country. What's lacking is freedom from severe economic constraints on media.Many U.S. journalists have shown real courage, risking their lives to cover wars and social upheaval in foreign lands. Ironically, the dangers of getting one's head shot off can seem quite a bit less intimidating than the hazards of clashing with management over matters of principle.Reporters who don't hesitate to work in a war zone are often remarkably timid when faced with the edicts of top editors. Maybe taking a bullet seems less scary than the specter of a pink slip or a career dead end. At any rate, biting the hand that signs the paycheck is not exactly a good strategy for career advancement.In our society, the pressures tend to be pre-emptive -- and internalized. "Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip," George Orwell observed, "but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip."We should resist the temptation to be smug about the situation here at home, where few whips are in evidence, and somersaults are everywhere to be seen.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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