Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Media defence

I’m a frequent critic of the news media, usually when I consider them lazy, complacent or in cahoots with a particular partisan viewpoint. Such behaviours are, in my opinion, an indefensible abrogation of their duty to citizens. The news media ought to be helping people be better informed participants in democracy.

However, there’s another side to this issue, namely, the increasing difficulty that journalists are having in reporting news due to government interference and censorship. The most obvious example of this may be the
US practice of “embedding” journalists so as to control their reporting on Bush’s Iraq war, but most Western countries have curtailed access to information as part of their own “war on terror”.

Recently, the leaders of Australian media companies took the unusual step of speaking out together against that country’s increasingly bad record on press freedom. In fact, the group Reporters Without Borders ranks
Australia 35th out of 168 nations for press freedom. Australia presently has some 500 regulations specifically intended to suppress information and reporting.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Australia 35th on its 2006 press freedom index. Finland was ranked first, Britain 27th, the United States 53rd and last was North Korea at 168th.

Speaking of censorship and suppression of information in the Asia-Pacific region, the report said:

New Zealand is in this context a successful example of virtually total respect for press freedom.

Contrast that with
Australia, where John Hartigan, chief of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian media operations, News Ltd., declared:

There has been an alarming slide into censorship and secrecy that has severely reduced what ordinary Australians are allowed to know about how they are governed and how justice is dispensed.

If one of Rupert Murdoch’s men complains about lack of press freedom, it’s worth taking notice. Actually, even Television New
Zealand experienced this:

ONE News cameraman Leo Shelton was standing on a public street when private security detained him, while corrections officers searched his vehicle and seized every tape inside. Corrections ignored TVNZ complaints at first but then returned the tapes four days later. The Australian government department said ONE News needed to ask permission first before they filmed from a public place, though local media said they had never heard of any such rule.

The irony of this is that the news crew was filming exterior shots to use in a favourable report about prisons.

Here in
New Zealand, the press is freer than in many other countries, which makes its rare slip-ups all the more jarring. Recently a Chinese reporter, apparently associated with Falun Gong, was prevented from attending a press conference with a Chinese official. But that’s about as bad as it gets here.

And, it’s also worth noting that even if
Australia, like the US, is introducing more repression and secrecy, its press freedoms are still ranked higher than the US.

Overall, the media tend to do reasonably well under increasing censorship and repression. My complaint is simply that I want them to do better, in fact, for them to do the best possible. It’s really the only hope we have of turning back the tide of repression because dictatorships cannot become established when exposed to bright light.

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