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The Hunt Is On for Watchdogs

Media: There is a frenzy of new anti-press laws world-wide, all inching closer to censorship.

June 02, 1997|LEONARD R. SUSSMAN | Leonard R. Sussman is senior scholar in International Communications at Freedom House, New York

In 1996, more countries than ever before drafted laws to restrict the press. Not just authoritarian nations, but new, old and would-be democracies as well. On all continents, the rule of law was used to restrict rather than expand press freedom. The effect in most places was not draconian but, to journalists, threatening nevertheless.

In April, an Indonesian court sentenced a journalist to 30 months in prison for insulting President Suharto. His article appeared in the country's leading alternative publication, produced by a press freedom association.

A new Freedom House study reveals that drafters of press laws in 43 countries last year proposed fresh legal constraints on the news media. In the nearly 20 years that Freedom House has been surveying press freedom worldwide, there has never been such a surge of law-drafting aimed at restricting the press.

The 33 different kinds of laws proposed to regulate news media can be broken into five general groups:

Security laws prosecute journalists for violating vaguely defined state interests or public values, giving censors greater freedom and journalists less. Croatia's Parliament, for example, made divulging "vital state interests" a criminal act, but did not define those interests.

Insult laws penalize journalists for insulting officials.

Laws enforcing "responsible journalism" may insist that reporting be based on "truth," but whose truth is it? Usually the information ministry's. Even the Council of Europe, composed of old-line Western countries, spent two years considering laws to ensure "press responsibility." The council will meet in December to renew debate over "the permissible legal limits to the freedom of expression."

One journalist from Ghana regards the debate as "ominous for Africa." And now Central and Eastern European legislators can and do take the shift in Western European values as a model for their young legal and institutional frameworks.

Economic protection laws reflect the post-communist striving for a market economy. Loss of jobs, a rise in inflation or corruption may be blamed on journalists who can be punished for undermining the economy. Honduras' National Assembly approved three- to six-year prison sentences for disclosing "false, exaggerated or tendentious news which puts the national economy at risk." Not a place for the likes of Wall Street pundits.

Then there are "desperation laws," the survey's term, which are without rationale. They simply threaten news media broadly to close the gap between government censorship and government control of somewhat independent news media. China, Singapore and Indonesia censor the Internet, and Iran bans satellite dishes nationwide.

This press-law frenzy is regarded by journalists as threatening. Threats are taken seriously during a year in which 46 journalists were murdered, 372 arrested, 47 kidnapped and another 297 physically abused.

Of the 5,771 million people in the world, only 1,233 million (21%) live in one of the 64 countries with a free press. Forty-two percent of the world's population lives in 62 countries with no press freedom, and 2,138 million (37%) reside in 61 states with a partially free press.

Wherever press laws were drafted, the exercise reflected rulers' fear of independent news media. Legislators were spurred by a range of events: sensational coverage of the British royal family, corruption in Western Europe, impatience with market forces in the former Soviet Union and East-Central Europe, and the scuffling for power in fast-changing Asia and Africa. Their objective, nonetheless, is similar: to turn press watchdogs into lap dogs.

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