Press Freedom in Our Genes: A Human Need | Freedom House

Press Freedom in Our Genes: A Human Need

Santurce, Puerto Rico

This, for me, is a homecoming ---with sad as well as happy memories. On December 4, 1941, my ship left the pier at Wall Street---an overcast, cold and foreboding day---to sail for Puerto Rico. But my arrival here was delayed by two days. As we sailed south, Japanese planes bombed the United States. World War II began. There was fear that the Panama Canal would be targeted next. Our ship changed course. A Nazi submarine had recently sunk an American passenger ship in the Atlantic. We reached San Juan but a submarine net prevented our landing until early on December 9.

Puerto Rico was blacked out completely every night. Troops were everywhere. Food ships, sunk along the way, stopped coming here. In six months, food shelves were empty. Hunger was not far off. Few private cars moved, and few buses were left with tires. Streets were filled with people walking long distances.

I come to you now---almost exactly 60 years later---from a new terror; that in New York. My Freedom House office on Wall Street is on the 26th floor overlooking the pier from which I sailed six decades earlier. And just six blocks away lies the massive pyramid of incinerated concrete and steel, like an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, the burial ground where nearly 5,000 innocents met death eight weeks ago.

I was just three hundred yards from the World Trade complex moments after the first plane had struck the tower. I hurried to my building on the river. The massive black cloud, the slivers of paper and cloth, were already darkening the sky and turning the street ash-white.

Two wars---60 years apart [1]. And now I'm back in Puerto Rico to share six decades of thoughts. About the journalism I have seen---the good and the bad---and the connection between the journalist and the government, in good times and bad.

But first, you should know my basic premise. It is stated in the title of my book, Press Freedom in Our Genes: A Human Need. In recent years there have been startling studies of the tens of thousands of genes, miniscule strands that determine aspects of each person's anatomy, physical health, and emotional predisposition. These studies of the DNA already assist criminal investigations. Some prisoners facing the death penalty have been freed when DNA tests determined clearly that they were innocent.

It cannot be excluded that one day, too, DNA will reveal the ages-old drive in the human genome for individual freedom. All great religions have human freedom as a fundamental aspiration; for some religions, if individual freedom is not achievable in this life, then in an afterlife. However theologically defined, freedom has always been a primary objective of human aspiration.

I further maintain that the freedom of news media is intimately tied to human freedom. For the press is a surrogate for the people. Since written records began---five millennia back---the struggle for freedom has distinguished the human being. Darwin's evolutionism linked all living things. Invertebrates metamorphosed to vertebrates, small-brained animals to Pulitzer Prize-winners. Each of us has that great vestigial mark: the natural urge to shake the body free of physical bonds, free of external mental restrictions, freedom to think and express. One day soon that special gene---even if now metaphorical---would favor freedom of information. In a word, press freedom is in our genes.

But make no mistake: with every new human effort to speak or write freely---whether by smoke signals, stone, television, satellites, the Internet, and always word of mouth---with each format have come restrictors of freedom: the censors---the State, the Church, the elites, the proprietors; and, no less, the self-censors among journalists who would avoid even the threat of restriction.

The struggle between freedom and censorship is with us today---even if in democratic states it is called "news management." After warlike attacks on American cities and the already heightened conflict, the role of the press becomes an urgent concern---for both journalists and governments. There is the natural expectation that news media will support a nation's defense. Yet, in a democratic society, the press should not be expected to yield its vital function as watchdog of governmental leaders. Indeed, in the crucial decisions of life and death facing national leadership, it is essential to have an alert, inquisitive press that can report and interpret both governmental actions and citizens' reactions.

This raises the question of the responsibility of the news media. The term a "responsible press" has a vastly different meaning to governments than to the press itself. During the 1970s and 1980s, bitter debates over responsible journalism were held in UNESCO---the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization---and in the UN itself [2]. Developing countries and the Soviet Union's bloc demanded the creation of "a new world information and communication order." They said it would assure that news reporting would be balanced and responsible. Clearly, this effort by governments to determine the standard of journalism worldwide would encourage censorship. That "new order" would be set by governments, and policed by governments. Hardly a prescription for press freedom or for an independent voice accessible to the people of participating countries.

One must also consider, however, the responsibility of government, particularly in wartime, to protect all the people from foreign or domestic enemies. For, make no mistake, at this moment the United States is at war. It has obvious foreign enemies. And as the anthrax attacks have demonstrated, Americans have domestic enemies as well (even if they are acting on behalf of one or another foreign state or terror group).

In this "clear and present danger"---the term the U.S. Supreme Court uses sparingly when restricting press freedom or human rights under incendiary threats to the nation---in this clear and present danger the normal peacetime models of press/government relationships must be re-examined---not only in light of the new dangers, but particularly under such tension to protect fundamental press freedoms, even if they are temporarily altered to meet wartime exigencies [3].

This challenge is being actively debated in newsrooms across the United States, by officials in Washington and New York, and by press-freedom advocates in Europe and the United States. The debate turns on two distinct sets of issues: First, the right of the press to have access in timely fashion to military actions under way; to plans and satellite photos of combat terrain; the extent of deaths and injuries inflicted by friendly and unfriendly forces; and specific elements of strategy being pursued; and, second, the right of the news media, particularly photographers and TV cameras, to roam at will over fields of battle and preparations for battle, and those areas that have already been decimated by terror strikes but are not yet cleared of dangerous rubble.

These issues combine matters of utmost secrecy, the irresponsible releasing of which information could seriously hamper friendly operations and could result in the death of friendly troops; or, as in the case of demands for free access to rubble in New York, could inflict cruel pain on families of victims.

The disembodied arm found two blocks from the World Trade Center may be proved by DNA testing to have belonged to a particular victim. That and more bloody, gruesome body parts would, indeed, make dramatic news photos. Many have been photographed, but by editorial decisions none have appeared in print. A European critic asked, however, whether government censors withheld bloody pictures. How morbid, how insensitive!

There is, indeed, a debate after the terrorist attacks over the question of press balance, national security, free speech and patriotism. Foreign observers, said one critic, "question the objectivity and independence of U.S. press and television." He asked, "Are [their coverage] acts of censorship or self-censorship?"

Should it be regarded as unbalanced coverage when U.S. media report the overwhelming response of the American people to the September 11 attacks? There were unanimous expressions of horror, broad public demands for a national response, and widespread acts of patriotism; a coming together of different political factions, diverse social and economic sectors and across all age groups. Meetings of pacifist groups on college campuses were also appropriately reported as were anti-American demonstrations overseas. For the news media to describe the overwhelming reaction was far more than expressing journalists' or managements' own patriotic spirit. Pure and simple, it was accurate reporting. It was unbalanced because the American reaction was fervently, broadly demanding a national---patriotic, if you will---response to the horrors in New York and Washington. The media were simply the people's conduit for such demands.

Clearly, the American press has itself been targeted. Anthrax spores invaded three television news networks and several daily newspapers. The press has handled such dangers with appropriate restraint. But there are questionable practices of some newspapers. One tabloid insists on headlining "our men" and "we hit the Tali-bums"---hardly mature, balanced or objective journalism.

Other criticisms of press/government linkages since that day in September are more complex. When the Voice of America was ordered by the State Department to withhold an old interview with an Afghan terrorist, clamor from the news media reversed the official ruling. The interview was broadcast. This reversal was a clear test of the First Amendment's power even in wartime, and especially since press freedom was supported for a semi-official medium such as the VOA.

A more controversial test of this freedom involved the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite TV channel. I have reported on Al-Jazeera for two years. It is amply funded by the rulers of Qatar. Since its founding, it has been a thorn in the side of other Arab governments. In some places, they have tried to ban it but their populations secretly tune in Al-Jazeera for news and comment not available in their censorious countries. I watched Al-Jazeera in London last month when it carried the controversial, lengthy speech by Osama bin Laden. The speech shown in its entirety was a cunning, calmly-modulated, religion-coated, hateful diatribe against Americans and all "infidels," and called for their elimination.

Soon after, Secretary of State Colin Powell met in Washington with Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and urged him to rein in Al-Jazeera's news coverage. Press-freedom groups in Europe and the United States immediately expressed "dismay" and "concern" that an "independent" news medium was threatened with censorship by an American official. This case was different than the VOA's carrying an old interview with a terrorist. The VOA matter reflected a traditional knee-jerk reaction by an official, perhaps to avoid the later claim that American funds were misused.

In the case of bin Laden's extended diatribe, said U.S. officials, there could be concealed in his performance coded signals sent to operatives to initiate new terror attacks. Enemy broadcasters discussing seemingly innocuous matters in World War II had done that. I was an editor of those broadcasts here at Hato Rey at the wartime listening post of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Perhaps more important, the virulent tone and content of bin Laden's speech was a clear provocation to stimulate and recruit a new cadre of fanatical followers.

As a press-freedom advocate I understand the dismay and concern of my colleagues when an American official urges outright censorship even for a bin Laden. I agree that it is important for Americans to know what he is attempting. But this can be achieved by reporting such diatribes as news, set in appropriate journalistic context, without giving bin Laden the stage for an unedited propagandistic performance.

Questions have been raised by European critics about the treatment of journalists at "ground zero," the former World Trade Center. The victims "have no face," went the charge. Journalists, especially photographers, were said to be restricted in their coverage. They were kept away from body parts, which were strewn throughout the dismal wreckage. As late as last week, the fires beneath the surface were still steaming, and the odors of cremated stone, steel and human bodies permeated the street outside my office. The wrecking crews hauling twisted steel and all manner of debris over a landscape of dangerous pits and moving parts still pose a threat to anyone traversing the vast area. The demand by some journalists, particularly editors abroad, for unlimited access is sheer folly. This control is not based on censorship but is a precaution to prevent injury or the death of journalists themselves. When he delivered another tirade last week CNN and others covered bin Laden's statement by calm reporting in appropriate context.

Finally, there is the question of news media being asked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, immediately after the attacks, to provide computer printouts of Internet conversations ending with "In sha'Allah" (Arabic for God willing). Some media complied. Some complained. As with the FBI's request to secure the keys to coded computer traffic---access to encryption, an issue debated for several years---the matter now became one of crisis priorities. When there is a clear and present danger involving real national security, should the near-absolute guarantee of the First Amendment be frozen even temporarily? That is a legitimate question, one worthy of debate by journalists and by government---not least by the U.S. Supreme Court at some later date. Meanwhile, it would be dangerous to assume that America's unique freedom of the press is being forever undermined on the pretext of a clear national emergency; indeed a fighting war.

A lesson from history is important to recall. In other wars, American news media have been temporarily restricted: in both World Wars, in Korea (but not in Vietnam), in recent incursions in Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. Significantly, whenever journalists were restricted and complained during military operations, public opinion polls overwhelmingly supported limited restriction of the press. Significantly, the anti-terrorist laws passed last week by Congress have a four-year sunset or cut-off time.

Before the attack on Afghanistan began last month, I had written quite a different speech for this meeting. I described the deplorable methods used by many governments today to influence, control or ban journalists and their institutions. For example, in more than 100 countries today journalists can be imprisoned for "insulting" government officials or institutions; in other words, for not acting "responsibly." However the law is worded, an insult law is used to stifle and punish political discourse and dissent, editorial comment and criticism, satire and even news that the government would rather hide from the public. Clearly, a form of censorship. (Ruth Walden, "Insult Laws: An Insult to Press Freedom," WPFC, 2000.)

Our Freedom House Survey of Press Freedom, which I developed over the past 25 years, provides a universal standard against which to judge scores of different abuses of press freedom. Our latest survey shows that only 21 percent of the world's population lives in countries with a free press [4].

Today, in too many places, journalists are either cowed by officials or are in the pay of those whose news they cover. Bribery of journalists is endemic in many countries. Russia is a prime example. Oligarchs as well as politicians own or control major newspapers and television outlets. Truthfulness in reporting yields to the financial or political need of the non-journalistic controller. In many African countries, military rulers and their appointees determine who can continue as a journalist, and what he or she can or cannot write. Of 53 African nations, only 6 have a free press.

A responsible journalist provides the necessary context of a report and the balance needed to cover more than a single side of the issue. In years past, "objectivity" was demanded of a responsible American journalist. But that standard was diminished during the bitter years of McCarthyism---the 1950s in the United States---when the highly prejudiced Senator exploited the objective standard of journalists to advance his demagogy with little balanced reporting or questioning by the press. Now, balance---not objectivity, if ever achievable---is the high standard of journalism.

Distortion of truth is not only at the demand of government. The early newspapers in the United States were strident party organs. They daily demonized ruling officials and their party or the opposition leaders, depending on the commitment of the particular newspaper. There was no effort to balance reports. A reader chose his newspaper for its party affiliation and expected the opposition to be reviled. In many countries today, a similar---no less strident---journalism prevails. Unhappily, in too many places today there is not the diversity of outrageous press coverage that was reflected even in the early press of the United States.

Today, even in democratic countries there is the steady concentration of ownership of the news media. Concentration moves backward in the direction of the early stages of journalism before diversity of content and pluralism of ownership were the hallmarks of democratic societies. Concentration appears in many countries, not only the United States. The largest global communication conglomerate, AOL Time Warner, resulted from the leading magazine publisher and major owner of cable-TV systems being bought out by the biggest operator of national and international computerized networks. How would the vast news and information storehouse of Time Warner be employed (some say exploited) or (without pejorative) integrated by AOL? The biggest merger in communication history may be seen as the victory of technology over content. News and information (TW) took second place to technological access (AOL); the perceived primacy of "effects" over substance, in Marshall McLuhan's much earlier analysis of the "inventory of effects" in The Medium is the Massage.

In recent years, I had the AP news printer in my office. The daily offering included news and features from scores of countries---well balanced and long-term stories as well as those with more sensational immediate interest. Sadly, however, when I met with daily news editors I would discover that few of the AP's world news stories that did not carry themes of immediate U.S. interest would appear in print. I would be told, "THEY don't want them." The American public has little interest in foreign news, ran the argument. My reply: there is a difference between WANT and NEED. A world power must educate its people to understand the world, and prepare itself for great policy decisions. Even the term foreign news is not appropriate; it is, rather, international news. Nothing---for a properly informed citizen---should be spiked as foreign.

Afghanistan is an example. In journalist circles decades ago there was the word: "Afghanistanism." It meant that there are subjects not worth covering in the daily media. Editors believed there was little interest in reading about them---until, of course, Afghanistan became a crucial battleground in the Cold War. But immediately thereafter, Afghanistanism reappeared. There was no further interest in educating Americans to assist Afghans in creating a democratic society. Instead, pull away and forget! Until the World Trade Center was incinerated. Now, again, Afghanistan is news. And Americans must catch up. They needed to do so earlier, whether they had wanted to, or not.

I come to my conclusion as a realistic optimist. Even in this time of great stress and uncertainty. There are trends toward bigger conglomerates, but there are also far more radio stations than ever before, far more TV cable channels than ever, and a greater awareness among newspaper proprietors that their editors should have a freer hand to set editorial policies [5]. If only television managements would return to the older concept that news and commentary are a public service, and not merely a profit source based on a viewer rating system---the system that stifles diversity and costly international news coverage. More optimistically, I believe that the Internet will eventually provide more diversity and greater access to information even in censorious countries [6]. Journalists have a magnificent opportunity to employ all the new tools, while learning from the history of press freedom that there are always incipient censors who would limit that freedom. They must be watched.


[1] I was met at the ship by Dave Safer, a classmate at Columbia Journalism, a colleague at the World Journal, and still a valued friend. Dave took me immediately to the newspaper. I started writing even before I unpacked a bag. In that blacked-out city room, shared with El Mundo, then the island's leading daily, I worked from 2:30 every morning until the paper went to press at 11:00 a.m. Despite the concern over imminent warfare and the military draft, there was exhilaration in Puerto Rico 60 years ago. There was vibrant journalism. I remember Mike Santin and E. Combas Guerra, Mundo stalwarts, and Angel Ramos, publisher of both Mundo and the World Journal. Bill Dorvillier, editor of the World Journal who later won a Pulitzer Prize at the Star. Good friends. All gone now. But the spirit of the journalism they practiced lives on, with some major differences, here and everywhere.

[2] I was an active player in those UNESCO debates throughout the decade. I visited 59 countries to discuss press freedom with governments and with local journalists. In developing countries, I stressed the values of independent journalism free of governmental influence or control. In democratic states, in the West and elsewhere, I acknowledged that there were, indeed, serious failures in global news reporting. There is the need to cover international affairs more regularly and more intelligently, to cover the social and economic developments in small nations, not mainly the exotica or the coups. In brief, I urged serious examination of the criticisms of the major news flows, and, as well, rejection of the censorious "cures" being advanced for a "new order."

Sadly, the censorious proposals were broadcast worldwide by the major news services, and the valid challenges were seldom heard. UNESCO ultimately rejected the "new order" when that organization's very life was threatened. The United States withdrew; the British followed but have since returned. The U.S. is still out, seriously reducing UNESCO's budget. But UNESCO has become a major proponent of press freedom. It has held significant regional conferences supporting press freedom in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. UNESCO created and annually marks on May 3, with international events, World Press Freedom Day. When journalists are in trouble, UNESCO now protests directly to the censorious government.

[3] Shortly after World War I, the Supreme Court in Schenck v. United States (March 3, 1919), unanimously upheld convictions under the 1918 Sedition Act. This was the first test of First Amendment protection of freedom of expression. It came in wartime. The court acknowledged that "in many places and in ordinary times" the defendants would have been within their constitutional rights. "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to cause a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils the Congress has a right to prevent."

[4] The global survey of press freedom examines 187 countries. We assess the laws and administration of laws affecting journalism, the degree of political pressure that influences the content of news reporting and analysis, and the degree of economic restrictions that affect content. Laws and administration should provide clear separation between governmental influence and control of the press, and the actual performance of journalists. Press laws should guarantee press freedom, not hamper it by devious means. Nor should the criminal or civil code be used to restrict coverage (except for clearly defined protection of citizens from libel or related aberrations). We examine the all-too-wide use of government power to harass, arrest, imprison and even murder journalists. No less vital to a free press are the political pressures on news media and economic decisions such as withholding of advertising to newspapers that criticize officials, or biased application of import quotas for newsprint or broadcast equipment, or political favoritism in radio/TV spectrum assignment.

Our latest survey lists 72 countries (39% of nations) in the free-press category. Some 1,269 million people---barely 21% of the world's population---live in states with freedom of the press. Another 2,600 million people (43% of the population) live in 53 countries (28% of nations) with a partly free press. And another 2,189 million (36%) live in 63 countries (33%) with a press that is clearly not free. Thus, only 21% of the world's people enjoy a free press. Puerto Rico, obviously, is one of those places. Though here, as in the United States generally, there are some restraints on press freedom. Truth is, there is no such thing as absolute freedom for anyone, anywhere. For there never can be absolute freedom for life in a mass society, no matter how democratic.

[5] There are other large news conglomerates. Viacom added the Columbia Broadcasting Systems (CBS) to its MTV Networks. This linkage reaches millions of young viewers nationally and internationally with news and music. Rupert Murdoch's network includes newspapers in England, Australia and the United States and Star Television with massive audiences in Asia. Last year, during my visit to Canada, I watched Israel Asper, who already owned a major Canadian television system, purchase 149 newspapers across the continent. For Canadians, this has political as well as journalistic implications. And Random House, the prestigious and biggest American book publisher, was bought by Bertelsmann AG, the large German conglomerate. Across the United States, moreover, the trend continued apace: cities reduced to having only one newspaper increased, the size of newspaper chains grew---Gannett now has 99 dailies--- and the government relaxed restrictions preventing a newspaper from owning a radio station in the same city.

[6] The Internet, as every means of communication before it, is not free of the censor's whim. In a study I made earlier this year I found that many of the most oppressive countries are providing somewhat more freedom to users of the Internet than these same rulers allow print and broadcast journalism. Ironically, however, some of the most democratic countries---the United Kingdom, Australia, France and the United States---control or attempt to control the content of messages flowing across the Internet. Sometimes they do this in the name of stopping pornography, sometimes in the name of national security. Whatever the rationale, the trend deserves watching. Particularly now, with new legislation in the United States to employ more pervasive surveillance to detect terrorists.

However, I have never subscribed to the "slippery slope" theory; that is, once you start down a certain path you must end at the most feared terminal. On the snowy slope, a skier can stop in midcourse, or even reverse course. So, too, a policy in the field of communication can be altered or halted if it leads in an oppressive direction. In a society of civil law and an independent judiciary, with many civil libertarians watching, I believe that even stricter surveillance laws can be kept useful for their intended purpose without violating the civil rights of individual citizens who are not in the terrorist business.

Leonard R. Sussman, senior scholar in international communications of Freedom House, was its executive director for 21 years. Earlier, he was a journalist on newspapers and radio, Press Secretary to the Governor of Puerto Rico, and director of its U.S. Information office. He has published books and articles on press freedom worldwide.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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