Freedom of the Press in Developing Countries [Archives:2002/03/Law & Diplomacy]

January 14 2002

Walid Al-Saqqaf
Freedom of the press, in general, is defined in the Webster dictionary as the right to publish information or opinions without governmental restriction, subject only to the laws of libel, obscenity, sedition, etc.
Hence, to discuss and assess the freedom of the press in developing countries, we need first to get at least a broad idea of the way those laws of libel, obscenity, sedition, etc. are being set in those countries.
To start with, we need to understand that most developing countries found themselves forced to adopt democracy and freedom of the press to cope with the worldwide globalization phenomenon that is pushing for more freedom and liberty for world citizens.
Being one of the most important pillars of democracy, the freedom of thought and expression always took great priority in any evolution towards a truly democratic country. Those laws of libel, obscenity, sedition, etc. were formulated in tens of years in the developed world. On the other hand, those are the same laws that cause great restrictions to journalists in the developing world. Governments tend to use those press laws to restrict the press freedom journalists could get and hence imposing self-censorship on journalists. This is done to make sure that journalists do not exceed their red line in terms of what they report, especially to what is related to national values.
Looking back in time, we can see that most of the developing countries started adopting democracy at a much later stage than most of the developed world. The fall of the USSR and the emergence of a sole superpower brought about abrupt changes in governments urging them to take solid steps toward adoption of democracy. Whether the rulers of those developing countries were convinced or not that democracy was the right choice, they found themselves obliged to move into the direction of democratization.
Due to the fact that the majority of those countries have been under dictatorships that controlled the press with an iron fist, it is only logical to see how difficult it would be for such a system to move on into a country where writers can criticize government actions. If the democracy we see in the West had only come after centuries of experiments, how in earth can we expect perfect democracies in developing countries, which started adopting democracy with the last decades.
Failure would be the most probable consequence of any violent and abrupt change in the way a country is run and in the way people and government are related.
For press freedom to flourish, there should be steady and strong steps in gradually and slowly integrating democratic values in the way of life of any nation. One should start by teaching children the values of freedom of expression within the family, the classroom, and the neighborhood. Once the generation is aware of the importance of tolerance and accepting the other opinion, the whole society could be ready for a major change to a free society where freedom of thought and expression is a major component.
We, in the Arab world, sometimes feel that we should get things easily. We asked for democracy, while we do not practice it in our family. We ask for press freedom and expect it to succeed, while we are not convinced that we should respect the ideas and opinions of our neighbors.
In other words, we are missing the main prerequisite for having a society that is truly free, and that reflects the true meaning of freedom of expression.
I may seem to be getting out of the line of the subject. But frankly speaking, I cannot help asking how we can adopt a system that we are not convinced of.
However, once the regime is convinced that democracy and a free press could help in development and reforms, there will be better coordination to point to the corruption, inefficiency, and obstacles faced in the country. The independent free press never attempts to damage the reputation of a government or regime, but it points to its mistakes and serves as a watchdog so as to have what is wrong corrected, and what is right encouraged.
And as Mr. James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank once said, What could be more intrusive on politicians than a free press? What is it that could enfranchise people more than a free press?
Yemens Example
Democracy came to Yemen following the unification of former south and north parts of Yemen in 1990, which came just one year after the collapse of the USSR. Democracy was a must for the unified Yemen to continue because it would be impossible to have one of the two former ruling parties rule the whole country alone.
The two leaders agreed on establishing a democratic system that would enable the sharing of power and having the people entertain their right to choose. As one of the prerequisites of a democratic system, freedom of press emerged.
In just a few months, more than 100 newspapers emerged. Many of them were of a strong critical stand of the government. All of the active political parties that were given licenses established their own newspapers. This resulted in a sudden flow of newspapers with diverse stands and opinions. The change was abrupt, and there was no culture of respect for freedom of thought and expression. In other words, the generation that talked about press freedom is that very generation that was taught that being against the government is a national crime.
People started believing that they could say whatever they want and whenever they want. We are free, and could use our newspapers to reflect our freedom, was a sentence frequently spoken out by journalists during that time. However, this wrong understanding of the freedom of the press led to unfortunate results in 1993 and 1994. When tension started emerging between the two former regimes of Yemen, newspapers of both sides started waging a war of words and accusations. There was no limit to the by then so-called freedom of the press. Newspapers would publish extremely harsh statements, which sometimes included immoral words. This media war puzzled the Yemeni population that stood as a spectator. People read things that they could have never imagined before. This could be freedom of the press. But is it the freedom that we wanted?
The media war reached its peak in 1994, when the Yemeni civil war erupted between the secessionists led by the leader of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) Ali Salim Al-Beid and the former northern military led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh resulted in a state of emergency. Freedom of the press came to a standstill. Newspapers were closed and others were simply bankrupt as the assets that operated them had been frozen.
Post-1994 Yemen was a beginning of a decline in the strength of opposition newspapers, which was a normal consequence due to the weakness of the YSP, which continues to nosedive today.
Reports of press freedom violations emerged in tens since then journalists were imprisoned, threatened, blackmailed by government and non-government individuals. However, there is no doubt that one of the major reasons for not fully recovering from the 1994 war is the post-war political picture.
History has taught us in any developing country that unless there is strong and solid opposition, there will not be solid press freedom. The reason is simple and straightforward. If there is opposition on the ground, and if this opposition is strong, then this will be reflected on the strength of the free opposition press.
There are many examples of countries where the level of freedom of press is linked to the level of opposition strength, especially if the country is new to democracy.
There is no doubt however that there are many other reasons behind the slow growth in freedom of press in the developing world.
To summarize, there are several factors that hinder progress in freedom of press in developing countries:
1- Weakness of opposition and anti-government movements.
2- Vagueness of press laws and regulations.
3- Financial-dependency of independent and opposition newspapers on elements that could be controlled or influenced by governments.
4- State censorship in all its forms (before and after publication.)
5- Self-censorship of writers who are under threat of prosecution.
6- Awareness of the importance of the freedom of and expression.
7- Insufficient role performed by NGOs working in the field of human rights in promoting freedom of press as one of the phenomena of human rights.
8- The doubt harbored by many governments regarding the need for a free press, and looking at the free press as an enemy rather than a partner.
My experience in the field of freedom of press in Yemen has shown me that if the government or regime understands the importance of freedom of press and is convinced that the press could help the government rather than disturb it, then there could be great chances for development and prosperity.
We are allies, not enemies is a statement that we often say on behalf of the press to the government.
However, the unfortunate truth is that there are very few regimes of developing countries that believe in the significant role the freedom of press could play, and think of this just as a manner to let those writers get their frustrations out on paper rather than have them accumulated in them.
Hence, it is only logical to understand that leaders of the developing countries are the ones able to promote or discourage press freedom in their lands. Let us work together to convince them that freedom of press is for them rather than against them. This should be the priority of all developing countries, including Arab countries that are left behind in this very important human rights pillar.