The past quarter century has been marked by steady gains for press freedom in all parts of the world. To be sure, it has also featured the murder of nearly a thousand journalists, the imprisonment of thousands more, and efforts to censor the press by methods both crude and subtle. However, despite backsliding and occasional setbacks, the general momentum has been towards greater freedom, less censorship, and expanded influence for independent media around the world.
The expansion of press freedom has accompanied an overall spread of freedom and democracy that has affected every part of the world. To a substantial degree, the reasons behind the growth of press freedom are much the same as the reasons behind the wave of political freedom that has swept the former Communist countries and much of what was once called the Third World. In the case of press freedom, however, there is an additional element: the central role played by the modern press freedom movement.
The origins of the press freedom movement can be traced to what is known as the UNESCO censorship wars. This year, 2003, is a milestone because America is rejoining the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after 19 years on the sidelines. Today's UNESCO is far different from the organization of 1976, when it called for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) - a global project to pressure news media worldwide to carry the "good news" emanating from developing countries, a campaign that was widely interpreted in the West as an international sanction for censorship.
The First Global Assault
UNESCO's 1976 conference on news flows was the first global confrontation between the state and the journalism community. What made the confrontation significant was that the forces of censorship seemed to have an ally in the large, influential, and respected institution of the United Nations. In the days of the League of Nations, before World War II, there had been acrimonious international conferences on censorship and related matters. These debates, however, took place behind closed doors and produced only verbose resolutions that few respected.
The UNESCO controversy was different. It was, to begin with, initiated by more than 100 developing countries, who were organized under the rubric of the Nonaligned Movement. The "nonaligned" call for NWICO was soon endorsed by the Soviet Union and its satellites. NWICO, despite some valid critiques of Western journalism, became yet another weapon in the Cold War debate. Some proposed cures for "unbalanced" international reporting were little more than transparent justifications for censorship. These included the licensing of journalists and the penalizing of violators of a government-produced code of press "ethics" and coverage. Although UNESCO did not subscribe to all such measures, it did provide a forum where such propositions for enhanced state control of the press could be aired and taken seriously.
UNESCO and the Nonaligned Movement attempted to make governmental regulation of the press the acceptable global norm. For decades, censorship schemes had been advanced at scores of international political, academic, and journalistic conferences. Third World government spokesmen repeatedly challenged the West's "free flow of information" concept. Seldom invited to the debates were journalists from these countries. They were the chief victims of "development journalism," a concept defined by its defenders as mobilizing the mass media for the purpose of stimulating economic growth. Clearly, the governments pushing hardest for NWICO were the same governments that already owned, controlled, or strongly influenced most aspects of the print and broadcast news media in their own countries.
The Soviet draft before UNESCO's 1976 conference summed up the NWICO case in one sentence: "[S]tates are responsible for the activities in the international sphere of all mass media under their jurisdiction." UNESCO would also attempt to define the legal "right to communicate," including "the right of reply through the communication media at the international level." In other words, at the request of a foreign government, Washington officials would be compelled to instruct a private news service such as the Associated Press what to carry on its wires.
The issue was joined: Must development journalism hamper or replace freedom of the press? Proponents of broad government control of mass communications--in addition to their efforts to link news agencies to economic development--claimed that Western news agencies distorted or ignored Third World news while transmitting information mainly of interest to the industrialized West. This was called "cultural imperialism."
There was, clearly, a substantial constituency for such arguments. In 1976, Freedom in the World, the Freedom House survey of political rights and civil liberties, showed only 39 of 159 nations rated "Free" on the civil liberties scale, which included freedom of the press as a criterion.
The campaign against press freedom continued in 1977, even as global concern for human rights expanded - pushed by new U.S. president Jimmy Carter. The secretariat of UNESCO, in combination with a group of Marxist academics, generated what was called "the progressive radicalization of the UNESCO position." There was a major battle over the wording of a Soviet-inspired text on the press. A number of organizations, including Freedom House, participated in a redrafting of the statement. The UNESCO staff, however, repeatedly restored the text's objectionable language.
In response to the mounting criticism, Western media representatives explained that their limited coverage of developing countries was in part due to the expense of assigning reporters on a permanent basis to countries that seldom generated news that would interest a global audience. Local journalists, they added, often lacked credibility because their reporting was influenced by the dictates of oppressive regimes.
Press Defense Begins
Prior to UNESCO's having taken up the news-flow question, American media seldom carried stories about the murder or oppression of developing world journalists. Only after the international press-control campaign began did American news media publicize the connection between oppression of journalism in Third World countries and the future of press freedom worldwide. Eventually, a connection was drawn between the movement for global censorship and the freedoms enjoyed by Western journalists. It was at this point that the modern movement for press freedom was formed.
A coordinated defense of press freedom got underway in mid-1976, when Freedom House issued an alert that got the attention of the press and policy makers in the United States. The World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), under the leadership of George Beebe, then associate publisher of the Miami Herald, began answering the drumbeat of attacks on the free press. The counterattack, however, developed slowly.
When Freedom House began reporting direct violations of press freedom, little attention was paid to this rapidly growing phenomenon. The significant progress in placing press freedom on the international agenda is attributable to a small group of activist organizations (see below).
Press Freedom Advocates
International Association of the Periodical Press (founded 1925)
Freedom House (1941)
Inter American Press Association (1942)
International Association of Broadcasting (1946)
World Association of Newspapers (1948)
International Press Institute (1950)
Commonwealth Press Union (1950)
International Federation of Journalists (1952)
World Press Freedom Committee (1976)
Committee to Protect Journalists (1981)
Reporters Sans Frontieres (1985)
International Freedom of Expression eXchange (1992)
More than 50 associations on every continent have been linked over the Internet since 1992 by the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX). Its members carry immediate news of press freedom violations to some 2,000 subscribers worldwide. They, in turn, protest directly to offending nations and may visit countries to discuss offenses. In a recent year, IFEX recorded several thousand press freedom violations. The organization has also provided resources to such developing groups as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). In several regions, leading journalists also worked ceaselessly to spotlight massive violations of press freedom.
In 1978, after six years of bitter debate, UNESCO finally approved the Mass Media Declaration. The declaration was considerably watered down from previous versions. It actually lent support to a free press, omitted earlier references to press controls, and implicitly promised to improve Western reporting of developing countries and bolster their communication capabilities. The text called for "a wider and better balanced dissemination of information." Third World and Marxist hard-liners would continue, nevertheless, to demand a form of NWICO.
A two-year consultation by 16 representatives of Eastern, Western, and Third World communication specialists concluded in 1979. This initiative, part of the 1976 compromise at Nairobi to prevent the breakup of UNESCO, was less antagonistic to the free press than had been anticipated. The book-length MacBride report agreed that there was no single model for journalism in a world that is pluralistic. The final report condemned all censorship and said journalists must have access to a variety of private and public views. Licensing of journalists was rejected. No support was given for the creation of a universal code of ethics, and there was no special reference to the need for the "protection of journalists," a code term for governmental licensing of the press.
As the UNESCO press-control campaign lost some of its steam, however, the debate entered the UN General Assembly through its Committee on Information. There, for years to come, NWICO would be promoted by the same alliance of Soviet and Third World players, with the same arguments made familiar at UNESCO. Only after UNESCO defanged NWICO in 1983 did the United Nations decide not to push the issue further.
Survey of Press Freedom
By 1979 it had become clear that a continuing examination of press freedom worldwide was needed. Freedom House thus launched the first annual Survey of Press Freedom. This survey would provide universal criteria by which to assess separately the print and broadcast media in every country. The survey examined each nation's press laws and their administration, the political and economic influences on the content of news reporting, and any violations of press freedom - murders, harassment, and arrests of journalists, as well as the banning of publications or broadcasts. The freedom of foreign journalists within each nation would also be assessed.
The first survey, published in 1980, made one highly significant finding. A half century earlier there had been 39 national news agencies in 28 countries. Seventy percent of these were nominally independent of the government. As a consequence of the UNESCO challenges to the news media in the 1970s, the number of government-operated news agencies increased rapidly. In 1980, fully 68 percent of countries had government-operated news agencies, many of which controlled news entering the country as well as domestic news coverage. Of the nations with the lowest civil liberties rating as measured by Freedom House, 95 percent operated government news agencies.
Meanwhile, press regulation or control continued to be widely debated among academics. An acknowledged leader of this debate was Kaarle Nordenstreng, chairman of the Department of Journalism at the University of Tampere, Finland, and president of the International Organization of Journalists (IOJ). The IOJ, funded from Moscow, had split off from the International Press Institute at the outset of the Cold War. Nordenstreng argued that the UNESCO debates over "national sovereignty" for the news media of developing countries "may be understood best as a step in the still larger struggle to break the domination of the world business system."
The significance of this argument would surface more than 20 years later as the world prepared for two World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005. Having lost the immediate NWICO objectives, many of the same players are pressing for regulation of the content flows on the Internet.
As the 1980s began, UNESCO's program-setting conference created a problem for Western delegates, who wanted to help improve Third World communications without accepting press control as part of a development package. As the ideological debates continued, free-press advocates would acknowledge that Third World demands for expanded communication facilities were valid and, indeed, necessary for democratic governance. At international media conferences, however, the continuing cacophony sounded to independent journalists as though all groups - thoroughly oppressive regimes, moderate developing countries, and the Marxist bloc - wanted governmental control of worldwide journalism. Moderate developing countries that simply wanted better news coverage were thus linked to a Leninist definition of journalism in these debates.
The Declaration of Talloires and the End of NWICO
The first coordinated counterattack by the free press was mounted in 1981 by the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC) at Talloires, a small town in the French Alps. Ninety media leaders from 25 countries, developing and developed alike, produced the Declaration of Talloires. The declaration vowed to "improve the free flow of information worldwide and resist any encroachment on this free flow." In a pluralistic world, said the declaration, there can be no international code of journalistic ethics; journalists must have access to diverse sources of news and information, official and unofficial, without restriction. It added: "We oppose any proposals that would control journalists in the name of protecting them" "a reference to licensing journalists under the guise of protecting them on dangerous assignments."
The declaration concluded: "Press freedom is a basic human right. We pledge ourselves to concerted action to uphold this fight." The Declaration of Talloires became a fundamental document in the history of the press freedom struggle.
In addition to providing a marker for press freedom advocates and critics, the Declaration of Talloires galvanized the U.S. Congress to action. A House of Representatives resolution warned UNESCO that if it set back press freedom, America would withdraw its financial support from the organization. UNESCO never did move to license or otherwise inhibit journalists, but it continued to provide a forum for those who wanted to do so.
UNESCO's director-general, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow, told an interviewer in 1981 that he would act always in support of democracy and press freedom. He stated privately, however, that as an international civil servant he must operate within his mandate; that is to say, he must adhere to the wishes of the governments that were involved in UNESCO debates. In fact, M'Bow went a step further by advancing proposals for press-control programs that a majority of governments, mainly from the Third World, greeted with approval.
The licensing of journalists was such an issue. Thirteen countries in Latin America already licensed reporters. To license implies the power to revoke a license when the state objects to a reporter's work. A long campaign to end press licensing in Latin America reached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 1984. The commission, however, voted 5 to 1 to support Costa Rica's press-licensing law. The sole dissenter was the deputy executive director of Freedom House, the only North American on the commission.
The issue next moved to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The court concluded unanimously that "the compulsory licensing of journalists is incompatible with ... the American Convention on Human Rights insofar as it denies some persons access to the full use of the news media as a means of expressing themselves or imparting information." The court's ruling also encompassed the right of readers, viewers, and listeners as well. Several years later, the government of Costa Rica ended the licensing of journalists.
In 1983, UNESCO approved the resolution, initially set forth by Freedom House, which pledged that the organization would never impose an "information order" on the world media. Other budgetary and administrative changes urged by the United States were also approved. Nevertheless, the Reagan administration announced that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO in January 1985. At that time, I was vice chairman of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (created by the State Department). We at the commission opposed the withdrawal and urged that the United States remain in UNESCO to fight for further changes. However, the United States pulled out of the organization. It was followed by the United Kingdom a year later.
In 1988, Director-General M'Bow was defeated in an election for the top post by Federico Mayor. A series of institutional reforms followed. Most striking was Mayor's commitment to a free press. He said that NWICO was now "history."
Mayor also arranged the first regional press freedom conference at Windhoek, Namibia, in 1991. Independent African journalists met with government officials to produce the Windhoek Declaration. It called for steps to enhance press freedom on a continent where the oppression of journalists was widespread. The declaration was adopted the following year in Kazakhstan at a similar press freedom meeting for Central Asia. Other UNESCO press freedom conferences were held in Latin America and the Middle East. Improvements, however, came slowly. Mayor also designated May 3 as the annual World Press Freedom Day, dedicated to a celebration of journalistic liberty and the assessment of threats to press freedom. In addition, the director-general personally issued protests to various governments that were violating journalistic freedoms in their countries.
Pressures from the CSCE
The next major development in press freedom was the introduction of glasnost in the Soviet Union by its new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost was an integral part of Gorbachev's strategy to resuscitate the moribund Soviet economy and enable his country to more effectively compete with the West. Gorbachev ended prior censorship of publications, broadcasts, and films. Editorial choice became the responsibility of the editors, most of whom were party members. Gorbachev's purpose was to encourage more creative use of new communication technologies to further perestroika, or the development of the economy. Whatever Gorbachev's intentions, glasnost clearly contributed to the implosion of the Soviet empire in 1991.
Another factor in the Soviet breakup was the 15-year exposure of the Soviet bureaucracy to ideological challenges from free societies within the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE should be credited with prying open some doors for diverse, if not fully free, journalism in Russia.
The CSCE, created in 1975, addressed many issues in three categories: security, economics, and human rights. The Soviet Union welcomed the CSCE as a means of legitimizing the division of Europe after World War II. The Soviets accepted the inclusion of human rights issues without realizing that they would become the Achilles' heel of the entrenched Communist bureaucracies in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as in Moscow. The CSCE's Final Act called for repeated international conferences to examine progress made in the three categories. The chairman of Freedom House, Max M. Kampelman, served for three years as the American ambassador at CSCE's Madrid conference. The conference featured frequent clashes over human rights violations, mainly those attributed to the Soviet bloc. Kampelman named victims, asked pertinent questions, and forced the Communist bureaucracies to respond in the public arena.
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 generated immediate changes in press freedom throughout Eastern Europe. For the first time, Russian news media enjoyed a modest degree of freedom. There were, however, problems as new media outlets were dominated by oligarchs who used the press to advance the business and political agendas of their vast corporate holdings. Despite the reduction of overt political control, threats to Russian journalists greatly increased. Prominent investigative reporters were killed, beaten, or blatantly threatened. Self-censorship increased. The news media were freer than they had been under Communist rule, but at a toll in physical violence. By the turn of the century, the credibility of the Russian press was significantly diminished.
Laws to Enforce Press "Responsibility"
In the 1990s, the market economy replaced the centralized Communist model across Russia, the Baltic States, and Central and Eastern Europe. The winds of change blew across the countries of Africa as well, prompting the start of a more diverse flow of news and information.
While the surge in democracy ushered in an era of unprecedented press freedom and diversity, it also generated a new set of challenges from governments that found a free and often aggressive media environment to be an obstacle and a nuisance. By 1993, post-Cold War tensions generated widespread proposals in Eastern and Central Europe, the former Soviet Union, and Africa to restrict journalists. Only totalitarian states still defended censorship. Yet there were increasing efforts to enforce rules to guarantee press "responsibility." Even European democracies joined the bandwagon. Sensational reports of domestic political escapades angered officials in Italy, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. In some former Communist countries, public frustration over unfulfilled promises and mediocre news media fed official efforts to restrict journalists.
Most troubling were proposals by Western European nations through the Council of Europe to consider the adoption of a code of journalistic ethics and a mechanism to regulate press fairness. The Parliamentary Assembly of the council defended the action as encouraging truth and integrity in reporting.
At meetings in Asia and Africa, developing countries signaled a desire to rewrite Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The article, which defines press freedom, stipulates that no restrictions be placed on the media. Article 19 is a key press freedom document; it is often invoked whenever the rights of journalists are under threat. Now, some developing countries were challenging Western definitions of human rights and singling out press freedom for particular attention. Some Asian rulers, notably Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, had long argued that "Asian values" must determine press standards in Asia. As applied to journalism, Asian values entailed consensus building, not adversarial reporting, and a modulated tone to avoid stirring up popular dissent. However, Asian specialist W. T. de Bary has argued that the "Asian values" argument involves the invocation of ancient traditions to preserve and increase a modem government's centralized political authority.
The final document of a Third World human rights conference equivocated on press freedom. It offered the media "freedom and protection" but only "guaranteed within the framework of national law." That would leave news media hostage to domestic politics without the protection of internationally accepted freedom codes such as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration.
The press freedom controversy would continue for several years within the Council of Europe. In this debate, the phrase "press responsibility" became a code word for restrictions on the news media short of censorship. The Council of Europe debate had important international implications. A five-year study (1992-1996) by the WPFC of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights revealed that the convention or its equivalents were used nearly 1,200 times in 109 countries to justify the prosecution or jailing of journalists, the closing of independent news media outlets, or other actions meant to stifle press coverage.
Such law-based restrictions were widely examined in the Survey of Press Freedom 1995 (which appeared in Freedom in the World 1995), the bloodiest "pressticidal" year on record--126 journalists were killed in 27 countries; 38 were kidnapped or "disappeared"; another 193 were beaten or otherwise assaulted; and more than 345 were arrested or detained. Governments seemed more interested in "press ethics" than in journalists' safety. Even in many countries with a free press, the press's moral authority was repeatedly challenged, most notably by political debates over press ethics. Draft statutes assigning moral standards for journalism subtly avoided the implicit onus of government pressure, while placing journalists on the defensive for acts labeled libelous or subversive; that is, acts that were not protected by guarantees of press freedom.
As country after country became an electoral democracy, the urge to adopt press-responsibility codes spread widely. In 1994 alone, 16 countries significantly increased statutory controls over the news media. Another 15 less drastically curtained press freedom. There were, of course, press freedom gains; the news was not all bad. However, these improvements did not offset increased controls. The worsening condition of journalists in 31 countries that year sent a warning that reformist expectations in the post-Cold War era were far from realized.
In a number of countries worldwide, legislators considered limiting the freedom of journalists; press laws were contemplated in 43 countries in 1996 alone. Some 33 different kinds of laws were advanced to threaten, regulate, or even confiscate or ban news media. These laws fell into broad categories: security laws, insult laws, and laws enforcing "responsible journalism."
Security laws would prosecute journalists and/or their employers for threatening national security, "state interests," public order, or even public values. Broadly defined, such potential offenses can target whatever the regime decides it does not like.
Insult laws are more sophisticated. A WPFC study in 2000 reported that in more than 100 countries journalists can be imprisoned for "insulting" government officials and institutions. Such laws, the study concluded, are used to "stifle and punish political discussion and dissent, editorial comment and criticism, satire, and even news that the government would rather hide from the public."
The debate over whether the state should try to enforce responsible journalism led to a paper prepared for the Council of Europe that addressed "the permissible legal limits to the freedom of expression." The paper suggested a modification of the concept of press freedom to protect security, public health, and morals, and oppose racism and violence. In democratic societies, such laws, the paper suggested, would be subject to judicial review. Where the rule of law was fragile, however, such laws could clearly be exploited by ruling elites intent on crushing media criticism.
At the end of the century, however, it could be said that the previous decades had brought remarkable gains for press freedom in nearly every part of the world. A century earlier, there had been no serious movement to expand the reach of a free press to the 95 percent of the world's population that had access only to censored or controlled information, or to no press whatsoever. Three European countries - France, Germany, and the United Kingdom - controlled all the news flowing into or out of Africa, Asia, and much of Latin America. All news from the United States was edited by the European cartel, which was also the carrier of world news to America. Not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 did areas of the world under Communist domination begin to experience some freedom of the news media.
The Internet--Promise and Problems
The Internet emerged as a major force in mass communications during the last decade of the twentieth century. By 2000, an estimated 400 million persons were using the Internet. Most were in the industrialized countries, but the elites of even the poorest nations were also hooked up to the global system.
In the Survey of Press Freedom 2001, Freedom House examined 131 countries for their treatment of the Internet. Countries were judged Most Restrictive, Moderately Restrictive, or Least Restrictive. We found 59 countries (45 percent) Least Restrictive. This compared with 72 countries (39 percent of the total of 187) regarded as having Free print and broadcast media in the larger survey. The Least Restrictive nations provided liberal access to the Web, and little if any control.
Fifty-three countries had Moderately Restrictive Web policies. Moderate restrictions included political as well as economic limitations on access to the Web and legal or administrative restrictions on content with punishment for violations. This 40 percent related to 28 percent of the countries regarded as having Partly Free print and broadcast media.
Nineteen countries, or 15 percent of the sample, were Most Restrictive. Countries categorized as Most Restrictive may permit only the state-run Internet service provider (ISP) to carry citizens' messages. Even if a private ISP operates, it may be under state surveillance. Citizens are subjected to fines, harassment, imprisonment, or worse for dissenting from official policies or for messages on the Internet deemed seditious. In the survey of print and broadcast media, however, 33 percent of the countries are regarded as being Not Free.
Some optimism for the future was found in this first survey of Web freedom because of the slight variance between the print-and-broadcast rating of some countries and their somewhat more permissive policies with regard to the Internet. This trend was especially notable in several Middle East countries. This glimmer of hope for expanding press freedom in the Middle East, a region long resistant to press freedom, was part of a small but significant series of signs of change in that region. Rulers of Qatar quietly funded Al-Jazeera, the television channel whose frank coverage of Arab and international affairs angered many neighboring regimes. Al-Jazeera also carried lengthy statements by Osama bin Laden, the terrorist leader of al-Qaeda, followed by statements of Secretary of State Colin Powell and other American spokesmen. CNN, unedited, now reached 85 percent of homes in the Persian Gulf region. A1 Sharq A1 Awsat, the Arab newspaper edited in London, circulated in all Arab countries and published opinion columns from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Christian Science Monitor.
In 2001, the assault on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon led to a series of countermeasures that posed a challenge to press freedom. Defenders of a free press wondered whether press freedom could survive, as unlimited as before, in an environment of enhanced security controls and increased homeland surveillance.
Such questions were openly addressed in democratic countries. New laws enabling the state to monitor electronic communications were enacted; these were opposed by civil libertarians and press freedom advocates. In less democratic nations, the threat of terrorism was quickly exploited to increase pressure on journalists and their institutions. Some authoritarian governments used fear of terrorists to reinforce their illegitimate rule.
In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) installed the Carnivore program on private Internet providers such as AOL to enable the government to monitor e-mail messages, trace the trail of communications, and obtain access to stored voice mail. The U.S. attorney general imposed tighter restrictions on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the law that gives journalists and others access to government documents. Other countries - including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, and the United Kingdom - took similar measures.
Direct threats by terrorists and preparation for a possible war in Iraq placed America on a limited wartime footing. Louis D. Boccardi, president of the Associated Press, the world's largest news service, said that the challenge for journalists was to "seek a new balance between vigorous advocacy of open government and our understanding as responsible citizens that the nation is now in a fight in which information and openness can be weapons used against us." Adjustments were made, but criticism of such "balancing" was heard as well.
Gains for Press Freedom
Nonetheless, global trends continued in the direction of enhanced press freedom. Ten years after the Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, UNESCO convened a representative group of African journalists. While the 1991 session had focused on the print media, the 2001 assembly produced the African Charter on Broadcasting, which called for "promoting respect for freedom of expression, diversity, and the free flow of information and ideas, as well as a three-tier system for broadcasting: public service, commercial, and community." The declaration called for a broadcast media environment that was free of interference, particularly of a political or economic nature. It would still require a dramatic change of policy in most African countries to secure the declaration's goal.
Of great significance is the acceptance of the idea - at long last - that press freedom is an inescapable component of the economic, social, and political development of nations. The linkage was immortalized by Amartya Sen when he received the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. "Press freedom," he stated, is "an integral component of development." The loss of information can have devastating consequences for a society. He attributed the Chinese famine of 1958-1961, in which 23 million to 30 million people died, to "the absence of an uncensored press."
For the future, perhaps the most encouraging factor was the decision by the World Bank to reverse its traditional position on the role of the mass media in economic development. For decades, press freedom advocates had urged the bank to support communication infrastructure in developing countries as a means of gaining diversity in news and information. The bank long refused, arguing that its mandate was to lend money for food, housing, and core development projects.
James D. Wolfensohn, the new president of the World Bank, reversed that policy. He declared that a free press is essential to the economic and political development of poor nations. "The free press is not a luxury," he said; "it is at the core of equitable development." The media, he added, can expose corruption and keep a check on public policy. The press can also enable people to voice diverse opinions on governance and reform and help build public consensus for change. To demonstrate the positive impact of a free press on national development, the bank generated major studies that employed, among others, the Freedom House survey of press freedom.
The policy research working paper (No. 2620) published by the World Bank stated important conclusions under the heading, "Who Owns the Media?": "We found that countries with more prevalent state ownership of the media have less free press, fewer political rights for citizens, inferior governance, less developed markets, and strikingly inferior outcomes in the areas of education and health."
Another hopeful sign is the Declaration of Chapultepec, drafted in 1994 and promoted by the Inter American Press Association. The declaration, signed by 29 countries in the Western Hemisphere, advances 10 principles necessary to guarantee freedom of the press and to support democracy.
A further initiative in Latin America was the 2001 framing of the Lima Principles. The Council of the Peruvian Press, under the direction of Enrique Zileri Gibson and Kela Leon, responded to the challenges presented for a decade by the oppressive presidency of Alberto Fujimori. Rapporteurs from the United Nations and the Organization of American States participated, with 14 other national and foreign specialists. They set forth principles on the right to access and disseminate information, on transparency and development, freedom of journalism and the protection of journalists' sources, limitations on exceptions to the right of access to information, protection of whistleblowers, and legal protection based on the independence of the judiciary. The text concluded: "Any existing regulations which contravene these principles should be abolished."
These and other efforts over many years had an impact on governmental resistance to a free press. For example, Mexico's legislature passed the nation's first freedom-of-information law in 2000. As with every aspect of a democratic society, however, fundamental gains are never assured for eternity but must be reassured through continuing vigilance.
The globalization of news media is a case in point. The amalgamation of large enterprises - newspapers, magazines, radio, television, films, music - into still larger enterprises brought more products to more people worldwide. The diversity of news and views could be limited, however, by "synergy" --the exploitation of one corporate product for delivery by another outlet controlled by the same management. The outcome could be the loss of content variety.
Benjamin Compaine, a research consultant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's program on Internet and telecom convergence, has a reassuring analysis on the larger question of whether a few big companies are taking over the world's media. He believes that the 50 largest media companies in the United States account for little more of total media revenue than did the companies that made up the top 50 in 1986. "Media merger activity," says Compaine, "is more like rearranging the furniture." He argues that while the big media companies have grown larger over the past 15 years, so have the developed economies, "so expanding enterprises often are simply standing still in relative terms."
The United Nations' Human Development Report 2002 concluded that 29 percent of the world's largest newspapers are state-owned and another 57 percent are family-owned. Only 8 percent are owned by employees or the public. For radio, 72 percent are state-owned and 24 percent family-owned. Sixty percent of television stations are state-owned and 34 percent family-owned. There is little direct investment in the media sector of most countries, Compaine concluded.
A few big companies are not taking over the world's media, he argues, nor do U.S. companies dominate the media. He also maintains that global media do not drown out local content. In Brazil, he notes, the U.S. commercial network MTV "plays a mix of music, videos, and other programming determined by local producers, even though it shares a recognizable format with MTV stations elsewhere." Fostering competition, says Compaine, has long been a central goal of U.S. media regulation. He contends that stricter regulation is not in the public interest and even argues that relaxing U.S. broadcast regulation has led to more competition. For example, Fox launched a new network to compete with the traditional three big networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC), and several other new networks have emerged under deregulation.
For poor countries and the poor within rich countries, the principal issue is greater access to the global media. To move the world toward this objective is the stated goal of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) scheduled for late 2003. One may hope, consequently, that the WSIS will not support restrictions on the Internet, but will encourage the widest possible diversity.
What, then, are the prospects that the Internet as well as more traditional news media will experience real freedom while providing more diverse flows of news and information?
The primary answer rests in the democratizing function of news media. In the past quarter century, news and information flows markedly influenced political change throughout the world. Democratic governance, after all, is impossible without a free press. However, an unstable democratic government (or any other unstable system) generally leads to restrictions on the press. A hopeful sign is the increasing awareness of this correlation and the growing number of places where freer mass communications, including the Internet, are slowly putting down stronger and more permanent roots. The emphasis placed on human rights by the United States and other governments also has had a positive impact. Despite horrendous violations of human rights in recent years, a higher standard for treatment of the press is becoming the norm.
The imposition by governments of "a new information order" has been defeated. That is a start. To be recognized as a genuine democracy, a country must remove the barriers to freedom of the news media. At the same time, the press is expected to fulfill its journalistic responsibilities as an essential part of a free society. That commitment requires diverse reportorial, editorial, and analytical coverage of domestic and international affairs, interaction between the public and the press, and the accessibility of the media to the information-poor, all without distortions of truth by sensationalism or bias.
The past quarter century has seen both a global assault on press freedom and a remarkable gain for freedom of the news media. The great challenge for the press freedom movement is to maintain vigilance - lest progress be reversed - and expand a free press reach where the censor still prevails.
Leonard R. Sussman is a senior scholar in international communications at Freedom House. His books include: Press Freedom in Our Genes: A Human Need (2001), Democracy's Advocate: A History of Freedom House (2002), and his memoirs (forthcoming, title TBA).