By William Fisher
“Democracy is inherently self-correcting. Here, the people are sovereign. Inept political leaders can be replaced. Foolish policies can be changed. Disastrous mistakes can be reversed.” So said Ted Sorenson, one of President Kennedy’s senior advisors and top speech writers in one of the few hopeful notes of his crie de couer commencement address at the New School University, lamenting the collapse of American values and America’s standing in the world.
For the past few months, the self-correction machine has been working overtime in the US media as well. For example, the New York Times’ ombudsman recently wrote a long apologia to readers for the shortcomings of the paper’s reporting on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. This was followed up in an editorial (July 15) in which The Times said: “…we were wrong about the weapons…we should have been more aggressive in helping our readers understand that there was always a possibility that no large stockpiles existed…we…fault ourselves for failing to deconstruct the W.M.D. issue with the kind of thoroughness we directed at the question of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, or even tax cuts in time of war. We did not listen carefully to the people who disagreed with us….”
And in an arguably even more remarkable media epiphany, The Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader newspaper recently ran a group of stories on its front page exposing its own history of whitewashing the Civil Rights Movement. On July 4, readers of The Herald-Leader saw the results of the paper's inquiry: a front-page exposé, two sidebar articles and a full page of previously unpublished black-and-white photographs describing how the newspapers -- The Herald in the morning and The Leader in the afternoon – virtually ignored the civil rights movement in Lexington." The poor coverage was not the result of mistakes or oversights, The Herald-Leader concluded, but a conscious strategy by the papers' former managers "to play down the movement in the hopes that it would wither away."
In the US, these are but a few of many examples. They are symptoms of a larger debate about the increasing politicization of news outlets, particularly television, the American public’s main source of news. One would be hard pressed to think of a healthier national conversation. And it is all the more impressive because it is being carried out, not by government edict, but by the transgressors themselves. It is a kind of reverse self-censorship. Democracy, in Ted Sorensen’s words, being self-correcting.
Lamentably, this American conversation is taking place at a time when much of the rest of the world is going the other way: governments are increasing their stranglehold on free speech and dissent. They are harassing, detaining, imprisoning, ‘disappearing’, and sometimes murdering journalists -- in Russia, in many countries of Asia, and particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, where governments often own or control the media.
Nonetheless, even in the Middle East, there are many courageous editors and writers who put themselves at risk every day by publishing ‘politically un-correct’ viewpoints. Newspapers like Lebanon’s The Daily Star, the Jordan Times in Amman, and The Arab News in Saudi Arabia, regularly publish content that could easily land their editors in jail.
One Middle East newspaper, distributed in Egypt, goes so far as to post, in its online edition, a news category called ‘Censored’, in which it lists and publishes the many print-edition articles rejected by government censors. The headlines of two articles censored just last week read, “Protestors condemn prison torture” and “Torture frequent and widespread in Egypt.”
The “Censored” page explains: “Egyptian law gives Egypt’s Ministry of Information the right to ban or censor any publication. The censor reviews each edition…before allowing (it) to be distributed. Articles may be censored if they: Report on human rights abuses, criticize the president or his family, criticize the military, refer to any ill-treatment of Egyptians in ‘friendly’ Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, discuss modern, unorthodox interpretations of Islam, or report on discrimination against Coptic Christians in Egypt.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based non-governmental organization that monitors infringements on press freedom and works to secure justice for jailed or ‘disappeared’ journalists, the situation in most countries in the Middle East and North Africa is getting worse, despite widespread clamor from within and without for political reforms.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently promised journalists that no one would ever be jailed again for a publication offense. He then discovered that this would require a new law. As of today, no such law has materialized. But other Middle East leaders haven’t even made the promise!
The irony, of course, is that many Middle East leaders have, at least rhetorically, embraced the need for political, social, economic and gender reforms. It’s well past time they turned their rhetoric into action. And there can be no more critical place to start than with freedom of the press.