World Press Freedom in the Eyes & Ears of the Beholder

by Trish Schuh

UNITED NATIONS- On the 14th Anniversary of World Press Freedom Day celebrated in May 3, UNESCO hosted an event for journalists called "Press Freedom, Safety of Journalists and Impunity." Under Article 1 of its Constitution, UNESCO is the only United Nations agency with a mandate to defend freedom of expression and press freedom.

United Nations Correspondent Association President Tuyet J. Nguyen spoke about the life-threatening danger faced by journalists covering such war zones as Rwanda and Iraq where the media is controlled by special interests or armed political parties.

Mr. Georges Malbrunot of France's neocon Le Figaro spoke of newsgathering under various "vicious surveillance" states- all Arab- and starting with Syria. In contrast, Malbrunot's embedding with American forces in Iraq was "not a bad solution", but opened embeddees to paranoid Arab charges of being "a spy...Its one of the major blames addressed to the foreign press today... Of course this blame is 99.9% wrong, but in the minds of these people who suffer from "conspiracy theory" this accusation is serious" and can cost a journalist his life. "There is alot of work to do to convince these groups that the journalist is not a spy." Malbrunot added that it is the work of Muslim Imams, scholars, leaders etc to persuade their Muslim flock of this fact... "Only then will the fate of the global war against terror be dramatically changed."

This writer asked the panel if journalists themselves could ever be partly responsible for such suspicions? Citing CNN's Anderson Cooper, who admitted spending his earlier summers working for the CIA: "Doesn't this kind of moonlighting put other journalists at risk?"

No response from the panel.

Representing half a million media professionals around the world on behalf of the International Federation of Journalists was Judith Matloff, a Professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a member of the International News Safety Institute. Professor Matloff implored the international community to uphold UN Security Council Resolution 1738 which prohibits the killing and targeting of media, and protects free speech and freedom of the press globally.

In a followup conversation by telephone on May 25, I asked Prof Matloff for her opinion on how UNSCR 1738 applies to Lebanon's Al Manar TV and the LMG communications network- Lebanese media outlets bombed by Israel during the 2006 war, and officially censored as a "terrorist organization" by the US Congress.

Regarding this unprecedented, landmark free speech/censorship law, Ivy League academic Matloff said she was "unfamiliar with these situations" and refused to comment on Middle East issues. "I am an Africa specialist".

But wasn't free speech protected equally around the world under Res 1738? In the Middle East, as well as in Africa? Being a media expert, could she comment on what a law equating the media with "terrorism" could mean for freedom of the press? Concurrent with Bush's admitted deliberate bombing of Al Jazeera in Afghanistan and Iraq?
"I never heard of that," Matloff said.

With her credentials, shouldn't such Katrina-scale censorship have caught her eye?

Or perhaps she could assess how the mainstream media's advocacy of falsehoods promoted an illegal war in Iraq? "The New York Times has apologized," she said, referring to a full page 'mea culpa ad'. But isn't the NYT repeating the same misleading tactics to promote a next war in Iran?

With this and similar questions, Matloff responded like a true press "pro": avoiding ethical implications, defending her product- the status quo, and referring most answers to "other supervisors" or experts. Her refrain of "I don't know", "don't remember", "can't comment" captured the essence of a White House Press Briefing.

As a trainer of America's next generation of government "privatized propaganda contractors," (tomorrow's 'Mercenary Press') Matloff diverted the subject, passed the buck, and expertly earned her tenure...

On Press Freedom Day I spoke briefly to New York Times correspondent Warren Hoge about the media, Iraq and World Press Freedom Day.

Q: Its World Press Freedom Day and I just wanted to ask if you have any comments about The New York Times and their reporting in the runup to the Iraq War, and if you feel any kind of responsibility?
A: I can't talk about that- we've already said everything about that to be said in the paper, and I really don't want to add to it. I mean, The New York Times- more than most newspapers- has absolutely admitted what we thought was faulty and what was not. There's just nothing I can add to that at all. And I certainly don't want to talk about that on
Press Freedom Day when our thoughts are with Alan Johnston and other journalists that are being killed.
Q: Well my thoughts are also with the Iraqis. There are half a million dead- thanks in part to
your newspaper-
A: Oh come on.
Q: Your newspaper was one of the primary advocates for the war-
A: Oh come on, I can't talk to you-
Q: Your newspaper was primary- yes it was- Judith Miller got a security clearance from Donald Rumsfeld, sir-
A: The New York Times is not responsible for any dead Iraqis. I won't listen to that-
Q: None of the other American journalists but Judith Miller from your paper got a security
clearance from the US Defense Secretary himself. How is this different from working for the government?
A: You are are defiling Press Freedom Day- Shut up! This is about Press Freedom, this is not about defiling the Press. We've just come back from a demonstration for Alan Johnston for journalists being killed and that's what this day is about- Press Freedom.

Perhaps BBC World News Editor Jon Williams best summarized the outcome of shutting up the press: "We must not stand by and allow the intimidation of journalists- wherever it happens. If we do, we will pay a heavy price... There will be no eyes or ears telling us what's going on. We won't have the insight from those able to make sense of it."

But then, that may be just how the Powers That Be really want it.

(c) Trish Schuh