CGR symposium addresses free press issues in the Americas
by Matt Walker
Freedom of expression and the right to access information must be protected as basic components to a free and democratic society, said experts at the annual Center for Governmental Responsibility symposium on April 15.
This year’s symposium, “Threats to Freedom of Expression, Freedom of the Press and Access Laws throughout the Americas,” addressed the benefits, challenges and current status of these issues from several different perspectives. Professor Jon Mills, dean emeritus and director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility introduced and facilitated a panel of experts as they each made separate but complimentary presentations on the topic.
“One of the major roles of the press and free speech is to allow criticism, which is why it’s a fundamental principle of democracy,” said Mills during his introduction of the panel. He pointed out the wide range of ways freedom of expression suppressed, historically and currently, ranging from censorship to execution.
The panel consisted of Julio Muñoz, executive director of the Inter American Press Association, Sandra Chance, executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and Diana Daniels, trustee at Goldman Sachs Mutual Funds Complex.
Muñoz began with a presentation that focused on the challenges Latin American countries face regarding freedom of the press and the importance of access laws.
“We would like to emphasize very clearly that information doesn’t belong to the government; information belongs to the people,” he said, adding that while the issue is often taken for granted in the United States and other countries, it can be an obstacle in Latin America.
He explained that access laws are relatively new in Latin American countries and have been met with resistance in some cases because of cultural and institutional barriers. And the Inter American Press Association is working toward greater acceptance of access laws where there has been resistance.
“As long as we can have access to information, we can have a better world within the Americas,” Muñoz said.
Next, Chance addressed issues of free speech and free press issues in the United States, emphasizing the importance of freedom of information laws.
She pointed out that the press in the United States might not be as free as Americans often think. Citing a 2009 survey by Freedom House, which ranked levels of press freedom in 195 countries, she said the United States tied with Luxembourg for 20th. But it was an improvement over ranking 53rd in 2008.
While there are laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act, to help safeguard the right to information, there have been recent challenges to press freedoms, particularly since Sept. 11. Press freedoms have regressed in some ways through increased privacy issues making access to information more difficult; journalists being jailed, subpoenaed and threatened; and through the government questioning the patriotism of journalists who ask questions.
Chance said currently the biggest challenges for openness in the United States include, “a passion for personal privacy that occasionally borders on panic,” software copyright issues, private business interests and the government’s need to recover the cost of making information available.
The greatest benefit to effective freedom of information laws is more accountability in government, she said.
Lastly, Daniels looked at how power and money affect freedom of expression in the Americas.
“In Latin America, I think it’s fair to say that many of the threats to freedom of expression and freedom of the press arise from an abuse of power and a profound and destabilizing corruption,” said Daniels. Instances of this type of abuse range from official policies of censorship to more subtle methods, such as government backed campaigns against traditional media and attempts to disrupt the supply and distribution of information.
Daniels said threats to freedom of expression are minimal in the United States when compared with Latin America, but are still present. The greatest obstacles include consolidation of media outlets and new media issues, such as local governments posting notices online, but not in print. This can result in less public scrutiny, access problems for people in rural or poor areas and issues regarding the reliability of publishing permanent versus alterable information.