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'World Press Freedom Day' needs courageous journalism, at home and abroad

Original post made by Jay Thorwaldson, editor emeritus, on Apr 30, 2012

Thursday, May 3, was designated as "World Press Freedom Day" today (April 30) by the California Legislature, echoing a 1993 action by the United Nations.

But in a world where the definition of "press" is changing almost moment by moment -- where traditional journalism is melding with social media, blogs, tweets and texting (with photos and videos even) -- what does "world press freedom" mean?

For many journalists, it means life or death, often with intimidation or even torture. For others it can mean simply taking the harder path, not being afraid of criticism or personal attacks, or resisting softer blandishments of praise or persuasion, which undermine trust when a journalist succumbs to them.

And many believe press freedom worldwide may be declining, there are many of us in the United States who are concerned about the quality of reporting in a nation divided politically, when some major news outlets adhere more to ideological positions, right or left, than to balanced reporting.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) believes a free press still is vitally important -- perhaps as or more important than virtually any time in history. His Senate Joint Resolution 22 was passed unanimously today by the California Legislature, something of a rarity in itself. Simitian and two other world-press-freedom advocates then presented a copy to representatives of the Sacramento Press Club, to make it official.

"A free press is something that's easy to take for granted in the United States,' Simitian said, citing the 1791 Constitutional guarantee of press freedom.

"But hearing stories of journalists in other countries who have been tortured and beaten for going about their day-to-day reporting reminds us just how important it is that we stand up and defend this fundamental right."

What the average person -- or average journalist -- can do isn't specifically spelled out by the resolution or Simitian's announcement.

Yet the threat is real, and deadly.

Worldwide, at least 43 journalists -- five in the past week -- have lost their lives this year doing their work, according to the International Press Institute (IPI), a network of editors and journalists based in Vienna, Austria. Thus 2012 is one of the deadliest years for journalists since the network started tracking journalists' deaths in the late 1990s, according the Anthony Mills, acting deputy director of IPI.

Mills and Jim Clancy, anchor of the weekly CNN program, "The Brief," joined Simitian in his call for greater attention to the issue of how a strong media is linked to democratic societies, and the challenge of supporting and expanding media freedom -- in whatever form it takes.

More than 1,139 journalists worldwide have died due to their work or while on assignment, Mills said.

Those killed in the past week include two Syrian photojournalists, a Pakistani magazine editor who was tortured and murdered, and two investigators -- one in Brazil and one in Peru who were investigating the murder of journalists -- were gunned down.


The challenge is immense. Only 15 percent of citizens worldwide live in countries with a free press, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit consultant to the United Nations -- which declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day in 1993.

"In too many countries, journalists continue to be persecuted for their reporting. Each year dozens are killed; still more are beaten, imprisoned, kidnapped, tortured or intimidated in other ways," Mills said, as quoted by a release from Simitian's office.

"This resolution reaffirms the vital role of press freedom and draws necessary attention to a day on which people around the world join together to celebrate the contributions of journalists to democracy, to remember those journalists who have given their lives in doing so, and to rededicate themselves to promoting accountability in government and strengthening civil society."

Links to recent IPI stories of persecuted journalists are at www.freemedia.at .

In comments relating to the resolution, Simitian summed up the crisis: "While the idea of a free press is deeply ingrained in American society, across the world courageous journalists are subject to censorship, shutdowns, deportation, imprisonment, torture and death." (A full copy of his mini-essay is at www.senatorsimitian.com .)

Threats to press freedom take many forms, he notes.

Ethiopian journalists who have investigated or criticized the government have been labeled terrorists. Turkey has imprisoned nearly 100 journalists, using anti-terror laws. Seven Brazilian journalists have been killed in 2011 and 2012, and journalists "continue to be targeted by drug cartels, powerful local politicians and others who fear the consequences of investigative reporting."

"Yet brave men and women continue to risk their lives," Simitian observes. "Their reasons are an inspiration to those of us living in societies where free expression is protected; and, all too often, taken for granted.

Tawakkol Karman, a winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize and an activist for press freedom in Yemen, told the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, that freedom of expression "is the right that the youth of the Arab Spring used to commence their revolutions."

A free press, he said, "is both the means and the goal of any change: In the absence of a free press, there is no democracy."

Anabel Hernandez, who has reported on the power of Mexican drug cartels, told the association why journalists must persevere: "By keeping quiet, we -- the Mexican journalism community -- endorse the violence, the impunity and the loathsome corruption that is strangling our nation.

"If we remain silent we kill freedom, justice and the possibility that a society armed with information may have the power to change the situation that has brought us to this point."

"Rights are strengthened by exercising them," Simitian concludes. "World Press Freedom Day reminds us that democracies, whether they are struggling to come into being, or have a longstanding history, depend for their survival on the rights of a free press and freedom of expression, and those who boldly assert them.

"Spread the word."

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be reached at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com.

Comments (4)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by Freedom-of-the-Press-Belongs-To-He-Who-Owns-One
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2012 at 7:57 am

> "Yet brave men and women continue to risk their lives,"
> Simitian observes. "Their reasons are an inspiration to
> those of us living in societies where free expression is
> protected; and, all too often, taken for granted.

Wonder if Joe Simitian has ever expressed similar sentiments about the men and women of the US military that have protected him and his family his whole life?

Well .. seems like our boy Joe is going to have to stand for election latter this year, so he's setting the stage for support from his local paper with a not-too-transparent you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours pat on the back. One has to wonder just how many of his own words Simitian really believes in?

Why, just last year, the Legislature that Simitian loves so much stiffed the Press, and the people of California, but refusing to release data about their spending, while on the job:

Public's Money Spent In Secret:
Web Link

Dan Walters--California Legislature enshrines sneakiness:
Web Link

Assembly underreporting personal staff costs, study concludes:
Web Link

Wonder if Joe Simitian took to the floor of the Senate and encouraged his counterparts to be open and honest with the Press about this, and every other inquiry matter put before them? Wonder how many times in the past Simitian has called for open and honest government?

Of course, not every paper focuses on the machinations of Sacramento, so not every paper carried this story—particularly papers that dwell on local news.

Well .. this is an election year .. it will be interesting to see if the Weekly tosses Simitian a few powder-puff questions and then endorses him for whatever elected position he happens to be running for today, or if they will actually investigate his voting record—one important issues such as energy deregulation, the emergence of the structural State deficit, and his waffling on High Speed Rail?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Midtown
on May 11, 2012 at 10:11 am

Yes,it is too bad that we do not have "courageous" journalism in Palo Alto, since the editors of the Town Square Forum have launched a crusade against any discussion of national political issues. The last few days we have seen unprecedented examples of censorship and deletion of postings without any explanation.
ANd this comes after years of the Weekly ignoring issues in our city that should have been investigated by the "jouranlists" at the Weekly.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Matt
a resident of Meadow Park
on May 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Amazing how many times that guy has been deleted.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by svatoid
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 11, 2012 at 5:36 pm

svatoid is a registered user.

Yes. Matt, he certainly is tenacious.
The whole issue could be quickly remedied if the editors would explain their reasoning. Not sure why they just do not, though I have my theories. I am certain we would hear the usual "this is my blog and if you do not like the editing go somewhere else" comment. I expect more from "journalists"


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