Any suggestion that the freedom of the press should be restricted is greeted with horror by journalists and, to be fair to them, most politicians in western Europe, North America and many other countries. Quite rightly so: a fully free press provides the checks and balances a plural democracy requires.
The question of whether this model is the best for crisis states is raised in a report from the London School of Economics crisis states research centre. The conclusion is that it is not.
The report by Dr James Putzel and Joost van der Zwan emerges from a workshop jointly organised by the LSE centre, the Annenberg School for Communications and the Standhope Centre. It was paid for by the UK Department for International Relations and brought together academics, journalists and policymakers from around the world.
They concluded that “in situations where the state is fragile and the political process is unstable and de-legitimated, the primary objective of donor assistance should be supporting the formation of a functioning state.” Among their 12 closely argued recommendations to policymakers are:
- Where appropriate, allow and encourage judicious state regulation of the media during the initial phases of state building in order to minimise the potential for divisive violent confl ict and maximise the potential for building national cohesion.
- Consider supporting the establishment of a national broadcasting corporation with a national reach and detached from vested interests, where this can be governed by an independent board according to principles of journalistic integrity and public service provision. Such support needs to be long-term since, in fragile states and particularly post-war environments, it may be decades before such organisations can realistically be locally funded.
Yesterday, before seeing this report, I was thinking about writing about an Inter American Press Association delegation which said President Hugo Chaves of Venezuela was using the courts and legal reports to weaken journalists critical of his leftist government.
The story in Dominica Today was given credibility by the leader of the visiting team, IAPA president Diana Daniels of The Washington Post. she said: “We are worried that, far from improving press conditions in the country, freedom could be further restricted before and after the election [due in December].”
In response, Venezuela’s Information Ministry called IAPA’s conclusions biased and deceitful, accusing it of doing the bidding of government opponents.
But while my journalist’s instinct was to write about the pressures on Venezuelan journalists something stopped me and I dug a little deeper to find there was a history of animosity between the Venezeulan government and the IAPA run by Julio MuÃ±oz.
Editor and Publisher reported that last fall, Venezuela’s vice president, JosÃ© Vicente Rangel called IAPA a “latrine” that represents the “murkiest and darkest of the media world.”
An interview with MuÃ±ez by Diana Barahonain in the left-wing Venezuelan Analysis provided more context. Moving her questioning to the attempted military coup against Chavez in 2002, Barahonain the interview went like this:
- DB – Do you support freedom of the press to participate–in other words, publishers or TV journalists or owners of the media like Gustavo Cisneros [Venezuelan-born media owner] and others–participate in plotting with the military in overthrowing a democratic government?
- JM – Yes. Everybody can have their own position, but…
- DB – I’m not talking about positions, I’m talking about plotting with the military to overthrow a democratic government.
- JM – Well, yes, of course. I don’t see anything wrong with any particular person that can have opposition against a military government.
- DB – Excuse me, I’m talking about plotting with the military to overthrow a democratically elected government.
- JM – Can you reword your question because I don’t follow you…
Clearly Venezuelan analysis has an axe to grind and I don’t know how accurate the report is but it has a ring of accuracy.
If the Crisis States report encourages journalists to look more closely at issues like the restrictions on the press in Venezuela it will have done good.