“Were it left to me to decide whether to have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to Edward Carrington in 1787, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Fortunately, neither Jefferson nor his successors have been forced to decide between these core features of liberal society. Guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, a free press has thrived in the United States for well over 200 years.
While the United States remains a beacon of press freedom, however, the story elsewhere is far different. The press is under siege across much of the world as governments target individual journalists for punishment (including death) and impose broad restrictions on the media as an institution.
That is a problem not just for journalists but for the billions who long to live in freedom. Without a free press to report their activities, authoritarian governments have more leeway to cement their rule and repress their people.
“Journalists faced an increasingly grim working environment in 2008, with global press freedom declining for a seventh straight year and deterioration occurring for the first time in every region,” Freedom House stated in releasing its new annual report on press freedom earlier this month.
“While parts of South Asia and Africa made progress, overall these gains were overshadowed by a campaign of intimidation targeting independent media, particularly in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East and North Africa.”
To be sure, newspapers in the United States face enormous strains – but they are financial, not legal. They range from the current economic downturn that has squeezed advertising revenues to the explosion of online and broadcast news sources with which newspapers do not yet know how to compete.
From New York to California, newspapers have closed and many others are bleeding money. Some cities that once had a series of thriving newspapers, published from early morning to late afternoon, are down to one.
Americans are tapping other sources for news, particularly on-line sources that are proliferating. Daily newspaper readership has dropped 19 percent since 2004 and over 70 percent of Americans now get their news from the Internet. Newspapers may be dying, but a new form of journalism is taking their place.
That’s a far cry from what’s happening overseas, where Jefferson’s caution about the vital role for newspapers seems far more apt.
Today, Freedom House reports, just 17 percent of the world’s people live in countries with a free press. The worst places for journalists are Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Libya, North Korea and Turkmenistan, but developments in several regions in the last year paint a wide picture of rising danger and oppression.
In the Asia Pacific, the situation remained bleak in China, Taiwan’s government increased its pressure on editorial content and its harassment of journalists, and conditions also deteriorated in Cambodia and Hong Kong.
In Central and Eastern Europe, journalists were murdered in Bulgaria and Croatia and assaulted in Bosnia, while Russia’s government targeted independent media as the judiciary watched from afar.
In the Middle East and North Africa, where the press is less free than elsewhere, governments in Libya, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia dealt harshly with journalists and bloggers. Hamas and Fatah intimidated journalists in the Palestinian territories and Israel imposed new restrictions on media.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, press freedoms deteriorated in Senegal (with more legal and extra-legal action against journalists), Madagascar (where media outlets faced attack), Botswana, Chad, Congo, Lesotho, Mauritania, South Africa and Tanzania.
In the Americas, press freedom suffered in Mexico, where journalists faced governmental pressure as well as violence against reporters who cover corruption or gang activity, and in Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
And in Western Europe, the press endured new problems in Italy and Greece. In the former, journalists faced new free speech limits and libel laws along with intimidation by organized crime and far-right groups.
The Internet offers hope that on-line journalists can evade the restrictions that governments impose on traditional media. But repressive governments in China, Iran and elsewhere work hard to block access to the web or crack down on those who use it to expose wrong-doing or promote democracy.
A free press is central to free society. A spreading crackdown on press freedom across the globe is an ominous sign for freedom in general.