Press freedom at risk here and abroad

May 10, 2010
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In Kazakhstan, a newspaper reporter is tossed from an upper-story window of an apartment building, his hands and feet bound with tape. In Honduras, gunmen ambush and kill two radio journalists in their car as they return from hosting a program. In Democratic Republic of Congo, a freelance television journalist is fatally shot in his home by men dressed in military uniforms.

As we marked World Press Freedom Day on May 3, those recent murders are further evidence that reporting remains a perilous profession and that journalists are frequent victims of repressive governments, overreaching corporations, organized crime and, in many places, low public trust.

Despite what’s written in many constitutions, including the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, only 17 percent of the world’s population lives under a free press system. The rest are divided about equally in nations with a “partly free” or “not free” press, according to Freedom House, a watchdog organization that promotes democracy and human rights.

Constraints on press freedom take many forms. Some involve kidnapping, murder or assault. Some involve prison, with about 140 now behind bars around the globe, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some involve economic pressures. Some involve censorship and self-censorship of the media. Other constraints involve abuse of governmental authority over licensing or access to public information and meetings.

We don’t need to cross international borders to find journalists and news organizations at risk. For example, the Society of Environmental Journalists says the Obama administration hasn’t fulfilled its promise of transparency and continues many of the Bush administration’s roadblocks to open government. They include long waiting periods and high fees for public information from federal agencies.

In the United States, the court system may be used as a weapon to deter and impede free and independent reporting on issues of public concern.

Consider the effort by a former Detroit federal prosecutor to force Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter to identify a confidential news source. Ashenfelter had written about an investigation of ex-Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino for allegedly mishandling a major terrorism trial that led to the dismissal of criminal charges against three North African immigrants.

A federal judge in Detroit rejected Ashenfelter’s claim of a First Amendment right to withhold the source’s identity. However, in February the judge did let Ashenfelter use the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to keep the name secret.

And last year, a Wayne County jury convicted reporter Diane Bukowski of the weekly Michigan Citizen of resisting and obstructing state police while covering a crime scene where two people died in a high-speed chase. Her coverage had frequently angered prosecutors and police. Bukowski was fined and sentenced to probation. Her case is pending in the state Court of Appeals.

Libel suits are another common weapon against the press, as when the Detroit News was sued despite accurately reporting that a Gibraltar School District bus driver was on a state Education Department list of public school employees with criminal histories. Felony charges were later dismissed after the driver completed a court-ordered diversion program. A federal appeals court tossed out the libel case in 2009.

Meanwhile, the press remains a popular punching bag when targets of investigation want to distract public attention from the real issues. You may recall that disgraced Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick tried to subpoena Free Press and Detroit News reporters in an effort to ferret out the person who had leaked steamy text messages between the mayor and his lover, who also was his chief of staff.

Whether in the United States or abroad, pursuing the journalists’ obligation to seek and report the truth with fairness, accuracy and balance takes commitment and, in many instances, personal courage.

In early April, columnist Enrique Villicaña Palomares was kidnapped and his throat cut, making him the fifth Mexican journalist slain so far this year and the 62nd since 2000, according to the press rights group Reporters Without Borders.

Alejandro Junco, a crusading publisher in Mexico, recently told a Michigan State University audience how his family left his country as a matter of safety because his independent newspapers regularly report on corruption, violent crime and narcotics-trafficking.

Junco, meanwhile, remains in Mexico. “We have to pay the price and run the risk,” he says.

Eric Freedman is associate professor of journalism at Michigan State University and director of Capital News Service.

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