Thursday, May 03, 2007

A very British press freedom

UN World Press Freedom Day is an occasion to remember the journalists who are in prison or who were killed while in pursuit of their stories, or to criticise governments which exert direct state control over the media. Today should also be a day to recognise that in countries like Britain, where nominal press freedom exists, media control is exercised just as effectively but in more subtle ways.

The Committee to Project Journalists estimates that at the end of 2006 there were 134 reporters in prison around the world. Top jailers of journalists were China, Cuba, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burma. Other journalists were simply murdered. The most prominent death was in Russia, where campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered outside her home last October . "People sometimes pay with their lives for saying out loud what they think," she had said. Politkovskaya was a fierce critic of the Putin government and had received many death threats. When she died she was working on an article alleging torture by special forces under the Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. She was the 12th journalist murdered since Putin came to power in 2000. The authorities have solved not a single one of these crimes. On 19 January this year Hrant Dink, a well-known Armenian Turkish writer and journalist, was shot dead in Istanbul. He was convicted last year on a criminal charge of "insulting Turkishness" after writing about the mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in World War I. A recent study by the International News Safety, said 1,000 journalists had been killed around the world in the past 10 years. The most dangerous place was Iraq, with 138 killed. Russia came next, with 88 deaths.

In countries like the United States and Britain, a different form of control is exercised, by corporations like Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp and the companies that control the TV and newspaper industry. The freedom to make TV programmes and publish newspapers is strictly in the hands of executives whose first responsibility is to increase profits and shareholder value. Access is tightly controlled and programming is directed towards the mass consumer market. So, for example, investigative journalism barely exists on TV, which instead is given over to consumer-oriented programmes about housebuying, gameshows or celebrities. This is true even at the non-commercial BBC, where competition for viewers has driven programme content down to basement levels. The media industry doesn’t have to be controlled by the state because it exercises forms of self-censorship while promoting the values of capitalist society. Only one mainstream newspaper, The Independent, clearly opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq while the BBC went into meltdown mode when one of its journalists rightly suggested that New Labour had "sexed up" intelligence dossiers.

Those who hold alternative views, or who organise protests, demonstrations or strikes, are largely ignored or treated with disdain by the mass media. In this and many other ways, the status quo of consumer capitalism is reinforced around the clock. Such is the freedom of the press in Britain.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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