Observations of an ex pat: Fettered press

It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the US constitution. It has been British Common law since 1688. It is a key element in the 1953 European Convention of Human Rights and the 2009 Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. It is Article Two of France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Part of the UN Charter.

Freedom of the press and freedom of speech is—allegedly—chiselled in stone in almost every constitution in the world with the exceptions of self-recognised authoritarian states such as China, North Korea, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

But according to the 2018 Press Freedom Index,released this week, this near universal commitment is observed more in the breach than the observance, and the breaches are occurring more often and—increasingly—in countries  regarded as members of the democratic club.

Let’s start with the leader of the“The Free World”—the United States.  America has fallen two places to 45th in the press freedom index. Reporters Without Borders, who produce the index, places the blame firmly at the door of the White House.  What do you expect when the president emulates Stalin by referring to reporters as “enemies of the people?”

The EU—bastion of liberal democracy– is meant to be a democratic club. Support for democracy and a commitment to principles such as a free press are pre-conditions for membership. If a government backslides it faces fines, suspension of voting rights and—in extremis—expulsion from club membership.

But these deterrents have failed to stop  an increasing number of EU governments. In Hungary (down two places to 73), Prime Minister Viktor Orban has accused Hungarian-born  billionaire philanthropist George Soros of supporting independent media outlets in order to “discredit” Hungary in the international public’s eyes. Orban has branded him public enemy Number One.

In Austria, the leader of the far-right populist FPO party accused the public radio and TV broadcaster ÖRF of spreading lies. In Spain (down two at 31), the October independence referendum in Catalonia has resulted in government-fuelled harassment of pro-independence journalists.

In Slovakia,  former Prime Minister Robert Fico set the tone by calling journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas” . He then sued them. In the Czech Republic (down 11 places to 34), President Milos Zeman brandished a dummy Kalashnikov inscribed with the word “journalists” at a press conference after previously calling reporters “manure” and “hyenas” and suggesting they should be “liquidated.” He was speaking whilst standing alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In Poland, anti-corruption investigative reporter Tomasz Piatek was threatened with prison after the exposing the defence minister’s murky links with Russian-organised crime.

In Italy, 11 journalists are currently under round-the-clock police protection because of death threats from the Mafia.

Harassment, name-calling, threats of imprisonment and actual imprisonment are one thing.  But they don’t hold a candle to the ultimate form of censorship: Death.

In two EU countries that was the fate suffered  in the space of five months by journalists investigating politicalcorruption.

Malta plunged 18 places to 65th in the Index. Journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia’s targeted car bomb death lifted the veil on judicial harassment and intimidation to which journalists are routinely subjected in the island state. Caruana Galizia had been threatened for years and at the time of her death was the target of 42 civil suits and five criminal cases.

 Slovakia, down ten places to 27th, is still reeling from the murder of a 27-year-old investigative reporter Jan Kusiak who had been covering alleged corrupt links between politicians and the mafia.

Out of the 28 EU countries, only six of them are awarded top marks in this year’s Press Freedom Index.   Britain, remains unchanged at 43rd on the list because of its traditionally tough libel laws.

Press freedom is more than a check on political excess and criminal activities.  It stimulates debate and disseminates information across the entire spectrum of human endeavour. The free exchange of ideas and comments is a driving force behind the advancement of human society and there is a clear and established link between political and philosophical debate and commercial and scientific success.  It is no coincidence that the most developed countries in the world are the ones who have enjoyed the freest press for the longest time.

* Tom Arms is the American-born membership secretary for Tooting Lib Dems. His Observations of an Expat appears regularly on Lib Dem Voice and in a number of US newspapers. Tom also lectures on foreign affairs, presents a weekly broadcast on world affairs for American radio and is working on a book about Anglo-American relations.

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9 Comments

  • Had Ed Miliband have got in, we’d have huge control of the press by socialists. His attacks on foreign ownership, breaking up ownership and Murdoch in particular were very concerning.

    Corbyn and friends would be even worse – imagine a situation where we could not criticise junior doctors, black cabbies or rail workers engaging in highly offensive strikes and disruptive behaviour.

  • David Becket 27th Apr '18 - 10:48am

    I am very concerned that this party, both centrally and in LDV, has lost sight of the real issue of the day. Every day we see articles on secondary issues, sometimes an article on Brexit or a specific issue, but nowhere is there a general attack on the competence of this government and what we would do about it.
    This thread is just an example

    Just look at the record this week.

    Amber Rudd, Windrush and other commonwealth citizens at risk
    Urgently needed doctors refused visas
    Government in chaos over Brexit
    No Technical Solution for the NI border pursued
    Train Franchise mess, with gormless Grayling in charge
    Violent crime, drug use with pollution and poverty on increase

    The list goes on, and we can add an incompetent Labour opposition.

    Where is our message of hope?
    Why is it not on our website
    Why is it not broadcast from central office to local parties
    Why does it not feature in LDV on a regular basis.

    Is it possibly because we do not have one?

  • Simple questions, are we relavent at all/anymore, what purpose are we serving, is there a need for a new force which would be relavent and have a purpose the public can understand, within which could operate?
    You tell me

  • Steve Trevethan 27th Apr '18 - 6:14pm

    A prime duty of every political party is to speak truth to power.
    We failed to do this when in coalition and we still fail in this duty, without which freedom dies.
    We were once a party of protest. We were then told that we were a party of power instead.
    We are now neither a party of protest nor power.Thank you Sir N Clegg.
    We were once trusted because we spoke informed protest to power as over the Iraq war. Thank you Mr C Kennedy.
    LDV could be a powerful tool for informed enquiry, unorthodoxy and protest. In its lack of coverage of vital matters listed in previous posts, as well as others, it is failing in fundamentals of party and national politics.
    The price of freedom includes eternal vigilance and the interrogation of the powerful.

  • Teresa Wilson 28th Apr '18 - 4:06pm

    @Stimpson,
    There is freedom of the press and there is fake news. Upholding the former should not include defending the latter. The fact is, the dominance in the UK of a small number of non-domiciled billionaire media moguls is not good for democracy. This is especially true when they all have a similar political slant and a penchant for printing large front page lies and small p.24 retractions if caught.

    Had the Sun, Mail and Express been left wing and pro-EU we might well have a Corbyn government at this moment. We would almost certainly not be embarking on Brexit. Whatever you or I feel about either of those scenarios, neither they nor the current reality should be decided in this way.

  • Almost completely agree with David Beckett, although I thought Ed Davey did well on ‘Any Questions’ today.

    It’s difficult to decide whether or not the Party leadership is in an empty space or a vacuum. There’s no evidence of any fire in the belly – and the needle seems to be stuck in the monotonous groove of Brexit.

    As for LDV ??? With a very few exceptions, ditto……. and I’m concerned for Stimpson about his vivid and fevered imagination.

  • Peter Hirst 3rd May '18 - 3:01pm

    It’s not really surprising that freedom of speech is under threat, along with an unfettered press. We need stronger institutions that monitor and take real action against efforts to silence these foundations of democracy at both global and local levels. Social media can be a tool in this accountability.

  • Depressing and worrying, but all these examples are in Europe or North America. It’s easy to forget while genuine liberal democracy is under attack in these areas, it’s been making strides in Africa and Latin America. Of course these continents can provide many examples of a fettered or bullied press, but perhaps the direction of travel has been positive?

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