Press Freedom Day | ‘The free press can also lie’

03 May,2012

By Alain Gresh


It was at the end of the 1980s, when Perestroika was in full swing. The Soviet Union was opening up towards pluralistic news coverage; discussions were raging in Moscow or in Leningrad. A delegation of Soviet journalists was invited to the US to study ‘freedom of the press’. They were brought around all the main media, travelled through various states and, at the end of the journey, received by journalists who asked them for their impressions. “It’s strange”, one of the Soviet delegation replied. “You don’t have a censor here, but still everyone thinks the same.”


Apocryphal or not, this anecdote is revealing. It shows that the freedom of the media as well as of journalists is an issue, not just in the countries that officially limit press freedom, but also in democracies. In 2002-2003, when the US was preparing to go to war against Iraq, even such highly prestigious newspapers as the New York Times or the Washington Post uncritically published the lies of the Bush administration, thus acting as a carrier of propaganda – something which gave rise to self-criticism several months later.


Already during the 1990-1991 war, many in the European and US media got caught up in the fabrications of the Allies’ propaganda: how Iraq had the ‘fourth-largest army in the world’, or how Iraqi soldiers unplugged incubators at a maternity hospital in Kuwait.


These examples show that the situation of the media in the democratic world is far from simple. Two obstacles oppose their capacity to inform public opinion. Firstly, the question of ownership; some belong to private groups (Lagardere in France, General Electric in the US), others to weapons manufacturing companies. When I spoke to a colleague from Europe 1 radio about the repression of the Kurdish people under Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he answered that I must have forgotten who owns the radio station: Lagardere, a supplier of weapons to the Iraqi regime.


The other obstacle is related to how the media operates in a ‘sensationalist society’, where nothing counts more than presentation, i.e. everything must be spectacular. How is it possible to explain, without images, in one minute on TV the crisis in Mali or the repression in Bahrain? How to generate understanding of the complex developments in Asia or the Near East when, for economic reasons, most daily newspapers are cutting their numbers of foreign correspondents?


The question of the freedom of the press and of journalists throughout the world is important, especially in countries where colleagues are arrested, imprisoned, or even killed. But it must not distract from the fact that these questions arise, in different forms, in democracies and that they are also vital for the future of our societies.


Footnote to the article:

WAN-IFRA or the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers shared with the media an editorial package of articles, analyses, photographs, cartoons and advertisements. This article by Alain Gresh, Deputy Director, Le Monde diplomatique and host of the blog ‘Nouvelles d’Orient’ is part of the package.

Mr Gresh has published several books, including Les Cent clés du Proche-Orient, Fayard, 2011, and De quoi la Palestine est-elle le nom?, Les liens qui libèrent, 2010.

MxMIndia stands committed to the freedom of the media and will do whatever it takes to combat any intrusion.


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