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Erik Bjerager, editor of Denmark newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, and Marcel van Lingen, Director of the Netherlands Press Association, are the President and Vice President of the World Editors Forum respectively. You are free to publish this editorial on or around 3 May with credit to WEF and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.


Freedom of the press is something you need to learn

The cheapest hotels, the best sushi, the most environmentally friendly holiday and the leading airline: we love them all. We make lists of the most attractive options available for spending time in one foreign country or the other. Sitting snug and warm at our fully secured computers and in our own safe private surroundings, we choose a destination for the family holiday or a weekend break away.

One list that is not part of those fun-filled holiday considerations, a list that is also often disregarded when deciding whether to travel abroad on professional grounds, is the annual overview table that ranks countries according to their degree of press freedom.

No, we are not going to Finland this year (a clear winner at the top of the list), nor are we going to New Zealand (ranks a respectable eleventh), but rather – and without misgivings – to a wonderful resort in Malaysia (way down on the list at number 141 out of 196). We also go quite happily to Vietnam (177), or perhaps to China at last (number 181), since its culture seems to make such a lasting impression on everyone else who goes there. And oh yes, North Korea, carrier of the red lantern at number 196; we might have considered going there too, but entry is forbidden.

In the professional environment in which members of WAN-IFRA and the World Editors Forum (WEF) find themselves, this press freedom ranking is a mainstay of freedom and democracy, and above all serves as a benchmark for the countries in which journalists can operate freely without pressure or repercussions. But as far as the average, comfortably well-off world citizen is concerned, citizens with the money for exotic holidays, it is a list that merits little more than a shrug of the shoulders. The press in Malaysia may not be particularly free, but it has some amazingly attractive holiday resorts, not to mention brilliant service!

And nevertheless, that sad list has to be made, year upon year. It is indeed as if we are trying to gain a picture of which countries make the most pleasant destinations because we want to know that everything we read, hear and see, in whatever country we choose to visit, is sincere and untainted, not deliberately misleading, that it is free of commercial interests, repression and any kind of constraints.

Because then we also know that those who have gathered and presented that news are also unblemished, have not suffered psychological and physical threats, and as far as possible have provided you with the plain facts. Moreover, we can safely assume that those politically responsible for the countries bringing up the rear of this list have a great deal to answer for. How tragic is it to have to maintain an international committee to keep track of how many journalists are taken prisoner or disappear without trace? And all because they wrote down, narrated or filmed what was going on. Nowadays, it is by no means only dictators that inflict unbelievable damage on press freedom. Perpetrators of organised crime worldwide do their utmost to attack unwelcome press attention with gross violence.

The theme of World Press Freedom Day, ‘Silence kills democracy, but a free press talks’, is clear in all its simplicity, but at the same time extremely complex. You have to learn to speak out by listening well and, in particular, by practising a lot. In addition to fully supporting the development of press freedom in general, WEF intends to do all it can to support the freedom of the press by making use of the knowledge and help available.

Treat with suspicion those who promise that freedom of the press will ‘soon’ be a fact in the countries that occupy the lowest rankings in the list described above. Treat with suspicion the dictators that say they are doing all they can to guarantee press freedom when they are put under international pressure.

But also treat with suspicion the journalists who claim to be able to make the move from press control to press freedom in the space of a day. Because freedom of the press is something you have to learn.

You have to learn to tell the truth, learn to write down facts that are different to those you once assumed, learn to note down opinions that are also new in the world of the journalist, and learn not to be afraid of giving your mental opponents a podium from which to speak. Only then can you call yourself a representative of the free press.


Credit: The World Editors Forum and WAN-IFRA


Alison Meston's picture

Alison Meston


2010-11-02 16:00

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Journalists continue to find themselves in frequent peril for simply doing their jobs as they strive to report the truth in the passionate belief that reporting what they see is the foundation of a healthy democracy. 3 May is World Press Freedom Day. Read more ...