GIRD­ING TO DE­FEND FREE­DOM OF THE PRESS

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - MAR­GARET SUL­LI­VAN news­room@mm­times.com

WHAT really makes Amer­ica great? It’s the mean­ing of 45 words found in the Bill of Rights. Here they are, the en­tire First Amend­ment: “Congress shall make no law re­spect­ing an es­tab­lish­ment of reli­gion, or pro­hibit­ing the free ex­er­cise thereof; or abridg­ing the free­dom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the peo­ple peace­ably to as­sem­ble, and to pe­ti­tion the govern­ment for a re­dress of griev­ances.”

Ev­ery­thing we have – ev­ery­thing that makes us un­like any other na­tion – flows from those words and the pro­tec­tions they of­fer for free ex­pres­sion.

Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency is very likely to threaten those First Amend­ment rights.

If they are dam­aged or re­moved, we’ll be like a lot of un­en­vi­able places.

“Free­dom of speech is a rare thing, after all. It’s one of the big dif­fer­ences be­tween the United States and a place like Cuba,” wrote John Daniel David­son this past March in the Fed­er­al­ist. “Cuba has no free­dom of the press – or rule of law. Li­bel is what­ever the regime says it is.”

These are rights that al­low us to march in the streets, to wor­ship freely, to pub­lish tough sto­ries about the govern­ment.

First Amend­ment rights are not just for jour­nal­ists but for ev­ery­one – they are so core to our democ­racy, so much a part of ev­ery­day Amer­ica, that we take them for granted.

Trump has made it clear that he has no in­ten­tion of pro­tect­ing or de­fend­ing those rights. He has said re­peat­edly that he wants to change the laws that al­low the press to pub­lish news – how­ever im­per­fectly – with­out fear of pun­ish­ment.

He has called jour­nal­ists “scum” and en­cour­aged his fol­low­ers to abuse and hate them. He would like to see his po­lit­i­cal op­po­nent locked up.

Noth­ing but cam­paign rhetoric? Clean slate time? No way.

“Be­lieve the au­to­crat,” urges Masha Gessen, a Moscow-born jour­nal­ist, wrote last week in the New York Re­view of Books. Amer­i­cans should not de­pend on their in­sti­tu­tions to pro­tect them – they crumble fast: “The na­tional press is likely to be among the first in­sti­tu­tional vic­tims of Trump­ism.”

It’s al­ready hap­pen­ing. Trump barred re­porters from his first of­fi­cial act as pres­i­dent-elect – his visit to the White House. Then, in a tweet, he blamed the me­dia for “in­cit­ing” street protests, when there was no ev­i­dence of that.

Mean­while, Corey Le­wandowski, who car­ried out Trump’s press black­list and re­port­edly roughed up a fe­male re­porter, was pre­par­ing for a pos­si­ble role in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. And Steve Ban­non, chair of the alt-right Bre­it­bart News, was named chief strate­gist on Novem­ber 13.

“We’re fac­ing a mo­ment that threat­ens equal pro­tec­tion, due process, free ex­pres­sion, democ­racy – not just press free­dom,” wrote Brian Beut­ler in the New Repub­lic. “It’s not a drill.”

What can pos­i­tive ac­tion look like? The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union moved quickly to dom­i­nate its web­site with a Trump photo and the words “See you in court”, with a prom­i­nent “do­nate” wid­get.

Oth­ers urged an in­ten­sive aware­ness cam­paign for ci­ti­zens.

“Our only hope is to de­vote our ef­forts to ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic as to why in­de­pen­dent press cov­er­age is im­por­tant to them [not us],” said Mickey Oster­re­icher, a lawyer who rep­re­sents the Na­tional Press Pho­tog­ra­phers As­so­ci­a­tion.

Amer­i­cans should be con­fronted, he said, with whether they “really want a state-con­trolled Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion un­der the thinly veiled guise of a Pravda-like press.”

In­deed, in coun­tries where the govern­ment con­trols the press, and which lack other speech pro­tec­tions, jour­nal­ists are jailed, even killed, as they try to do their work. Ci­ti­zens are afraid to ex­press their views pub­licly or to as­sem­ble. Un­til now, the United States has been a bea­con for them.

“The voice, power and in­flu­ence of the United States has been a boon to the men and women re­port­ing from the front lines of wars and the back streets of au­toc­ra­cies,” Alex Howard of the Sun­light Foun­da­tion, a free-speech or­gan­i­sa­tion, wrote.

Isn’t it point­less to fight back? An­to­nio Gram­sci, the Ital­ian po­lit­i­cal writer jailed by Mus­solini’s Fas­cist regime, be­lieved in “pes­simism of the in­tel­lect and op­ti­mism of the will.” In other words, you can know your clap­board house is on fire, and you’re a long way from civ­i­liza­tion. But you have to call 911, get out your gar­den hose and bucket, and keep act­ing as if the firetrucks are on the way.

Although things didn’t work out too well for Gram­sci, who died at 46 shortly after he was re­leased from prison, his for­mula of­fers a path for­ward. Look the sit­u­a­tion in the eye; know how bad it is. That’s the pes­simism of the in­tel­lect.

As for the op­ti­mism-of-the-will part? For jour­nal­ists, it’s writ­ing and re­port­ing ag­gres­sively and fear­lessly, and be­ing will­ing to fight for ac­cess. For ci­ti­zens, it’s be­ing well-in­formed, in­clud­ing sub­scrib­ing to news­pa­pers and sup­port­ing the best jour­nal­ism. It’s help­ing to de­bunk and call out fake news. It’s do­nat­ing to, or get­ting in­volved with, civil rights and me­dia rights or­gan­i­sa­tions. And it’s back­ing pub­lic of­fi­cials com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing free ex­pres­sion.

Amer­i­cans cer­tainly shouldn’t move to Canada, but they should heed the words of the Cana­dian song­writer Joni Mitchell, “Don’t it al­ways seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

We’ve still got our pre­cious First Amend­ment rights. Now it’s time – high time – to pro­tect them from the fire. – Wash­ing­ton Post

Mar­garet Sul­li­van is The Wash­ing­ton Post’s me­dia colum­nist. Pre­vi­ously, she was The New York Times pub­lic edi­tor, and the chief edi­tor of The Buf­falo News, her home­town pa­per.

Photo: AFP

Thou­sands of anti-Don­ald Trump protesters con­tin­ued to stage a de­mon­stra­tion in New York on Novem­ber 13.

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