Press freedom a bitter battle in Third World

November 17, 2004

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SANA’A, YEMEN – Ever wonder why you don’t live in a George Orwell novel, a place where up is down if the right person says it’s so; a place that sooner or later, like a rotten empire, will always implode under the weight of its own self-deceit?

One reason is because of the newspaper you’re reading. American poet Walt Whitman put it aptly, “The newspaper is the Bible of democracy.” This is what good journalists believe, even here in Yemen. Yes, on my first visit to the Yemen Times I saw this creed on a newsroom wall: “The job of a good journalist is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

How sacred. And costly.

Take Abdulkareen Al-Khaiwani, editor-in-chief of the Yemeni newspaper Al Shoura. It’s now closed and Khaiwani is in jail, serving a one-year sentence. He made the mistake of sharply criticizing certain government officials. He’s now also had his skull cracked open by an inmate who tried to kill him.

Reminds me of Zahra Kazemi, the Canadian-Iranian photojournalist who died last year after her head somehow got crushed while she was interrogated by prison officials in Tehran. Meanwhile, reformminded papers in Iran continue to be closed handover- fist.

Yemen’s press actually has more freedom. The recently- released 2004 Press Freedom Report by Reporters Without Borders, reports that Yemen has more media liberty than most Gulf countries. Canada, by the way, ranks 18th out of 167 nations. And North Korea now holds the notorious bottom spot.

Officially, the big rules here are to never slam the president, or the Islamic faith. And never report news that jeopardizes national security, whatever that means. Regardless, after a string of government crackdowns, this country has slid to 135th on the global list. That’s below Somalia and Afghanistan. So if journalists here aren’t carrying a mobile in one hand and a handgun in the other (which an editor at one trouble-making weekly reportedly does), then they’re simply trying to deal with tightening government control through a media-licence system that England outgrew centuries ago.

Of course media are kicked around in most places. Only about 1.4 billion of Earth’s 6.4 billion people have access to a free press. Some 2.5 billion people don’t, and the other 2.5 billion live in countries where media is only partially free. Not surprisingly, most of these people live in the developing world.

Which begs the question if building strong media is not integral to Third World aid and development. Certainly it is. So why does the international aid community respond easily to needs like water projects or health clinics, yet ignore the key role that a free press has in sustainable development? Without a free press, societal institutions and civil liberties that support other advances simply can’t be built.

This thinking has been slow coming. Maybe the press in the developing world hasn’t told its own story well enough. The reality is that it survives hand-to-mouth. Equipment is outdated, and staff are poorly trained and poorly paid. Imagine having to choose between telling the truth or getting extra cash under the table to feed your family.

Some still manage to be a force. Yemen Times’ editor- in-chief Walid Al Saqqaf, who recently asked western embassies to write Yemen’s government about Al-Khaiwani’s jail experience, is trying to get European donors to fund Yemen’s first national newspaper association. That could build an entirely new infrastructure here.

And not all groups have ignored the plight of Third World media. A Yemeni editor once thanked the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists by writing “If it hadn’t been for the CPJ, we would be writing from our graves right now.”

Nonetheless, to bring lasting transformation, international donors really do need to wake up to media in the planet’s neediest places. And more welltrained western journalists need to move alongside the Walids of the world.

Work gives satisfaction like few things can. It helps teach folks to fish, rather than just giving them a fish. And, maybe, just maybe, it helps tear down systems that in the end are destructive for everyone.

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November 17, 2004 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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