Press Freedom: Is It Alive and Well in the World?

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I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we tell about freedom of the press around the world.

In a perfect democracy, the news media serve as an independent observer of government and society. Without the media, citizens would remain uninformed about public officials and their behavior. However, in many countries, corrupt individuals and groups repress, jail or even kill journalists who report information about the misuse of political power.

In nineteen forty-eight, the United Nations approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One part of it says everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to hold opinions without interference. Also included is the freedom to seek, receive and share information and ideas through any media, including across national borders.

Reporters Without Borders studies press freedom around the world and releases a report every December. The group said last year was the most dangerous year for reporters in more than ten years. Two thousand six had the highest number of deaths of reporters in one year since nineteen ninety-four. Reporters Without Borders said eighty-one journalists were killed for reasons related to their jobs. At least thirty-two media assistants were killed while performing their jobs or expressing their opinion. Fifty-six journalists were kidnapped during the year.

Iraq was the world's most dangerous country for the media for the fourth straight year. Sixty-four journalists and media assistants were killed there last year. The second most dangerous country for the media was Mexico. Nine journalists were killed there last year while reporting stories about the drug trade and social violence. The Philippines was third on the list with six journalists killed. Reporters Without Borders also noted attacks on journalists in Russia, Turkmenistan, Lebanon and Bangladesh. It said thirty Internet Web writers were arrested and held for several weeks in countries including China, Syria and Iran.

Vincent Brossel works for Reporters Without Borders. He told VOA that one very important story did not get enough attention -- the shooting death of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Politkovskaya worked for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. She was well known for her reporting on Chechnya. She was also an outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies in the rebellious Russian territory. A report by Politkovskaya on torture in Chechnya was to be published just two days before her murder in Moscow in October.

Mr. Brossel accused Mr. Putin of not doing enough to punish Politkovskaya's killers. Mr. Brossel also noted that twenty-one other journalists have been killed since President Putin has been in power in Russia. And he said those responsible have not been put in jail.

Journalists around the world face many risks while trying to do their jobs. Independent reporter Madi Ceesay says Gambia is one of the worst nations in Africa for the press. Mr. Ceesay was arrested and jailed in two thousand and two thousand six in his native Gambia. He said his arrest sent a message of fear to other Gambian reporters. He told VOA that Gambian officials consider independent journalists linked to political enemies instead of voices for the oppressed.  Mr. Ceesay was in the United States recently to receive a Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Christopher Simpson is a journalism professor at American University in Washington, D.C. He told VOA that the United States is generally safe for journalists. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution includes the statement that Congress shall make no laws that reduce or limit freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Experts say that in a democracy like the United States, the press has two jobs. One job is to inform the public. The other is to observe and investigate government activities. This relationship between the government and the press can be difficult or even hostile at times. Issues of national security often cause increased tensions between the media and government.

Modern technology has changed the way journalists cover the news. Information now spreads quickly because of the Internet computer system and satellite television. As a result, public opinion has changed about what news is and how reporters do their jobs.

Jim Van Nostrand is an editor for McClatchy Interactive. It is part of the McClatchy Company, one of the top newspaper businesses in the United States. Mr. Van Nostrand says the old newspaper model provided only one-way communication. The newspaper printed a story and the people read it. Now, people can play a part in the reporting process. The power of the Internet is changing the way newspapers deliver their product and their relationship with readers. With the Internet, people can get news immediately. They can send comments and questions. They can help a news organization shape the way it reports the news.

But modern technology has also created problems for the news industry. In recent years, the number of newspapers sold in the United States has been dropping by as much as two percent every year. More and more people are getting information from the Internet. Print news organizations, especially newspapers, are seeing their profits drop and their readership disappear. Most people either love or hate how technology is changing the news industry. Yet experts agree these changes have helped strengthen freedom, democracy and human rights. This is because societies now have more information to consider.

Jeffrey Dvorkin is with the Committee of Concerned Journalists. He told VOA that governments sometimes change policies because of news on the Internet. For example, in two thousand five, a video on the Internet showed police abusing an ethnic Chinese woman detained in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The incident had an international effect. Malaysia's home minister launched an investigation after China expressed concern.

Some experts say the spread of information over the Internet and by satellite television has also helped strengthen human rights movements. Professor Simpson told VOA that non-governmental groups are collecting and broadcasting information about people's lives to show extreme poverty and police abuse.

Some experts believe this is why the Internet is restricted in places like China, and repressive governments ban satellite television. Still, new satellite television stations in several countries show that the world is ready for more news and information. Professor Simpson says the expansion of information helps increase democracy.

Satellite television and other modern technology to send information cost a lot of money. This is one reason why media ownership has changed in the United States. More and more news organizations are coming under the control of a small group of huge mass media companies.

Fifty years ago, many American newspapers and broadcast stations were owned by local companies. This is no longer the case, said Jeffrey Dvorkin of the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Now, five large corporations own most of the news media in the United States. And, he said the corporations are under continuous pressure to guarantee large profits to their shareholders.

The news industry, like any other, must aim to make profits. But, Mr. Dvorkin questioned whether this push for greater profitability in the news industry has affected the quality of journalism. Technology has provided more choices of where to get news. But, Mr. Dvorkin noted there are also fewer independent organizations doing independent reporting than ever before.

He also said the news media are special because they have an important responsibility in a democracy. He said journalism should inform people about issues that concern them as citizens of their community, their country and the world.

This program was written by Jill Moss. It was produced by Lawan Davis. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. You can find our reports on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English.

Voice of America Special English

Source: Press Freedom: Is It Alive and Well in the World?
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