Track record of sev­eral coun­tries isn’t ex­actly re­as­sur­ing, writes David Kil­gour.

Ottawa Citizen - - OPINION -

Al­bert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s min­is­ter of ar­ma­ments, was asked on his re­lease from prison in 1966 what lessons he drew from the Sec­ond World War and the re­lated deaths of an es­ti­mated 50 mil­lion peo­ple. He replied that the catas­tro­phe was pri­mar­ily the re­sult of Ger­mans los­ing their in­de­pen­dent press dur­ing the 1930s.

Abra­ham Lin­coln, mean­while, be­lieved so strongly in news­pa­pers and their role in pub­lic de­bate that he owned one in Illi­nois the year he was elected pres­i­dent in 1860.

In­de­pen­dent me­dia are es­sen­tial to good demo­cratic gov­er­nance. Yet, de­spite Amer­ica’s well-known First Amend­ment, guar­an­tee­ing free­dom of the press, the U.S. this year stands only 45th out of 180 coun­tries ranked in the an­nual In­dex of World Press Free­dom by Re­porters With­out Bor­ders.

Di­min­ish­ing me­dia free­dom is a grow­ing con­cern across the world, but a re­cent study by Time mag­a­zine on the sit­u­a­tion in South­east Asia il­lus­trates the gen­eral prob­lem. It points out, in sum­mary: All 10 mem­ber states of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions last year placed in the bot­tom third of the In­dex. In 2014, the army of Thai­land (140th) over­threw an elected gov­ern­ment. The Philip­pines (133rd) voted in Ro­drigo Duterte, who boasted about com­mit­ting mur­der and told jour­nal­ists they could be­come tar­gets of as­sas­si­na­tion.

The ex­po­nen­tial rise of so­cial me­dia and smart­phones en­cour­ages in­tim­i­da­tion of jour­nal­ists. Matthew Bugher, head of the Asia pro­gram for Ar­ti­cle 19, an NGO that de­fends free­dom of in­for­ma­tion, notes, “As the con­trol of tra­di­tional me­dia be­comes more per­va­sive, and so­cial me­dia is the one out­let that’s ac­ces­si­ble, gov­ern­ments are fig­ur­ing out ways to clamp down on that as well.”

As re­cently as 2016, Cam­bo­dia (142nd) had one of the re­gion’s best news­pa­pers, but be­fore this sum­mer’s elec­tion, Prime Min­is­ter Hun Sen dis­solved the largest op­po­si­tion party and ar­rested its leader. The na­tion’s last in­de­pen­dent pa­per has been sold to a busi­nessper­son with links to Sen. Cam­bo­dia has now re­lin­quished any pre­tence of democ­racy.

When No­bel lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected in Myanmar (137th) af­ter six decades of dic­ta­tor­ship, many hoped her party would grant free­dom to the me­dia. In­stead, dozens of jour­nal­ists have been ar­rested. Two Reuters re­porters, who were in­ves­ti­gat­ing the killing of 10 Ro­hingya Mus­lims, have spent more than six months in prison. Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment bizarrely dis­misses in­de­pen­dent me­dia re­ports as “fake news.”

Sin­ga­pore (151st) has a vir­tual gov­ern­ment mo­nop­oly over news. Hu­man rights ob­servers say strict leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing a re­cently en­acted anti-ter­ror law per­mit­ting me­dia black­outs, has been de­lib­er­ately de­signed to limit free­dom of ex­pres­sion. “This re­sults in ... self-cen­sor­ship by jour­nal­ists and me­dia work­ers, both on- and off-line,” says Rachel Ch­hoa-Howard at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

Viet­nam (175th), ac­cord­ing to Hu­man Rights Watch, in 2017 ar­rested 41 ac­tivists. Among more than 140 po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers are high-pro­file ac­tivist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, now nom­i­nated for the No­bel Peace Prize, and en­vi­ron­men­tal blog­ger Nguyen Van Hoa. The Hanoi regime has also un­veiled a cy­ber unit de­signed to si­lence crit­ics on so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

The In­dex re­flects the grow­ing in­flu­ence of “strong­men” and ri­val me­dia mod­els. Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia (148th) is ex­tend­ing its pro­pa­ganda net­work by means of me­dia out­lets such as RT and Sput­nik, while Xi Jin­ping ’s China (176th) seeks to ex­port its tightly con­trolled news and pub­lic af­fairs. Their re­lent­less sup­pres­sion of dis­sent pro­vides sup­port to other coun­tries near the bot­tom of the In­dex such as Turkey (157th).

There is some good news. Malaysia (145th) re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced a “demo­cratic mir­a­cle” and woke up to a new gov­ern­ment. Vot­ers had ousted a prime min­is­ter caught up in a vast cor­rup­tion scan­dal and overnight the coun­try be­came a source of hope. Though the new prime min­is­ter, Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, who served in the of­fice from 1981 to 2003, ear­lier had lit­tle tol­er­ance for in­de­pen­dent me­dia, his new ad­min­is­tra­tion as­sures re­form. He’s promised within 100 days to abol­ish the world’s first “Fake News Law” that gives the gov­ern­ment power to ad­ju­di­cate truths and false­hoods.

None of this is to im­ply that in­de­pen­dent me­dia are blame­less. Pew Re­search last year in­di­cated that there are deep di­vides in the 38 coun­tries it sur­veyed on pub­lic sat­is­fac­tion with news me­dia. Al­most three-quar­ters of read­ers/view­ers op­pose par­ti­san­ship in the news me­dia and many give them low rat­ings for im­par­tial­ity.

Abra­ham Lin­coln and Al­bert Speer were cor­rect about the cru­cial role of in­de­pen­dent me­dia in ac­count­able demo­cratic gov­er­nance. Nel­son Man­dela of South Africa said it best in 1994: “A crit­i­cal, in­de­pen­dent and in­ves­tiga­tive press is the lifeblood of any democ­racy. The press must be free from state in­ter­fer­ence ... have the eco­nomic strength to stand up to the blan­dish­ments of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ... have suf­fi­cient in­de­pen­dence from vested in­ter­ests to be bold and in­quir­ing with­out fear or favour ... (and) en­joy the pro­tec­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion, so that it can pro­tect our rights as cit­i­zens.”

David Kil­gour is the for­mer Sec­re­tary of State for Latin Amer­ica and Africa (1997-2002) and Asia-Pa­cific (20022003) in the cab­i­net of Prime Min­is­ter Jean Chré­tien. He rep­re­sented south­east Ed­mon­ton in the House of Com­mons from 1979 to 2006.

A crit­i­cal, in­de­pen­dent and in­ves­tiga­tive press is the lifeblood of any democ­racy. The press must be free from state in­ter­fer­ence ... (and) en­joy the pro­tec­tion of the con­sti­tu­tion, so that it can pro­tect our rights as cit­i­zens. Nel­son Man­dela.


The elec­tion of Aung San Suu Kyi af­ter decades of dic­ta­tor­ship brought hopes for new press free­doms in Myanmar, but dozens of jour­nal­ists have been ar­rested dur­ing her time in power.

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