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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 18:18 GMT
The struggle for media freedom
By Roy Greenslade
Professor of Journalism, City University

Press freedom may appear to be a straightforward concept - but it defies easy definition, even within the liberal democracies that proclaim its enjoyment.

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Seen from a global perspective, press freedom is a relative term, differing in degree from country to country.

In those countries where it exists by virtue of a written constitution or a bill of rights, or by parliamentary custom or legal precedent, its boundaries are continually being tested - sometimes by debate, sometimes through the law.

In countries such as totalitarian states where there is no political freedom, press freedom remains an ambition yet to be realised.

It is also an ambition that leads people to the loss of their liberty and, increasingly, to their deaths.

Violating freedom

Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF), a French-based press organisation that acts as a worldwide journalistic watchdog, produces an annual index that records the state of press freedom in 169 countries.

Egyptian journalists protest
Egyptian journalists protest at co-workers being jailed

In its latest report, it names Eritrea in last place, while Iceland and Norway sit jointly at the top.

The index is not based solely on how many reporters are killed in each country - though murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats do make up one component.

What matters as much is the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy, and the efforts made by the authorities to guarantee respect for that freedom.

Importantly, the index includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those who are responsible for violating freedom. It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise.

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Recent assessments have also looked at whether people can access information freely on the internet.

For my daily blog for The Guardian newspaper in Britain, part of my brief is to monitor the violations of press freedom across the world.

For the past four years that has meant recording the deaths of media workers in Iraq. Most of the murder victims have been brave Iraqis, working either for local or international newspapers and TV channels.

Barely a week has passed without someone being killed.

Murder

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the New York-based press watchdog that keeps an account of each death, 119 journalists and 41 "media support workers" have been killed in Iraq since March 2003.

The constant threat of death has made reporting from that country virtually impossible for outsiders and a deadly hazard for indigenous journalists.

Anna Politkovskaya
Anna Politkovskaya's death indicated the threat to journalists in Russia
In the past year I have written often about journalists dying in Pakistan, Mexico and the Philippines.

In those countries, it seems, the authorities make little, if any, effort to investigate the murders of reporters.

In Russia, ranked at 144, there is little public sympathy for journalists.

A year after the murder of the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya, there have been nine arrests.

But there have been other unexplained deaths involving journalists in the country and a worrying lack of action by the authorities.

And there are other concerns. Are media outlets held in too few hands? Does a narrow ownership base give owners - and their supporters - too great a say over the dissemination of information?

Does a commercially-owned media, funded in the main by advertising, restrict public-interest journalism?

Starved of information

In Britain, which has long boasted a gold standard public service broadcaster in the form of the BBC, there are fears that diminished resources, because the government has pruned its funding arrangements, endanger its ability to carry out its job properly.

That has engendered a heated public debate.

Protests in Rangoon
The internet was used to get images out of Burma during protests
Yet these kinds of arguments often appear like academic questions to people without the luxury of receiving any information except that allowed by government dictat.

Wilf Mbanga is the editor of The Zimbabwean, a paper he and his wife produce from a tiny room at their rented home in Britain.

Printed in South Africa and shipped across the border into news-starved Zimbabwe, the Mbangas cannot publish enough copies to satisfy demand from people desperate to know more than they can read in the official organs sanctioned by Robert Mugabe's regime.

Sitting in the back garden of his leafy suburban home on England's south coast, Mbanga enthuses about the "genuine press freedom" enjoyed by the British.

Yet, as a British journalist, I spend a lot of my time writing about attempts by the government to constrain the use of a Freedom of Information Act that is already weaker than the one that exists in the United States.

Good for the US, you may say, but on the night of 18 October two US newspaper executives in Phoenix, Arizona were arrested for publishing details of a grand jury hearing that they believed the public had a right to know.

While they were released the next day after widespread protests from journalists concerned about an assault on press freedom, it adds to the evidence that press freedom has not been achieved anywhere.

The struggle continues.

This article appears in the December 2007 issue of BBC World Agenda magazine. The first part of Roy Greenslade's programme Press For Freedom is broadcast on BBC World Service at 0905GMT on Wednesday 12 December.

SEE ALSO
Pakistan orders UK reporters out
10 Nov 07 |  South Asia
Daily reality of net censorship
17 Oct 07 |  Technology
Report highlights blog censorship
16 Oct 07 |  Special Reports
Egypt papers agree day of protest
28 Sep 07 |  Middle East
Burma's cyber-dissidents
26 Sep 07 |  Asia-Pacific

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