July 25, 2024

Press Freedom

Freedom of the Press Committee Report January 25, 2011

Since our last report, your committee has written letters:

  • To President Aleksandr Lukashenko of the Republic of Belarus, protesting his brutal repression of protests that his re-election was stolen, and of the beatings and other retaliation against journalists attempting to report on these events.
  • To Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Republic of Turkey, welcoming his attempts at reconciliation with his Kurdish minority but deploring the continued prosecution of Kurdish journalists trying to report contradictory news.
  • To President Rafael Delgado of the Republic of Ecuador, calling on his government to investigate the vicious abduction and beating of a sports reporter who was investigating charges of misconduct in professional soccer.

We have also written to China and Mexico, and letters are currently in the works to China, Ecuador and the Philippines. Kevin McDermott and Jeremy Main have begun asking members of the board to write at least one letter each quarter. (Please note that our recent letter to Ecuador was produced by OPC Third Vice President Arlene Getz.)

However, our most visible and resonant project in the past month has been the on-going debate on the OPC website over the WikiLeaks (must be logged in to read and post comments) release of confidential State Department dispatches. As you know, the Press Freedom committee decided that this issue did not involve freedom of the press and took no position on it, but we did open the debate to OPC members. The result was fascinating, producing (thus far) 26 thoughtful/provocative responses. They reached no consensus, ranging from full-throated defenses of WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, to charges that the document dump amounted to anarchistic mischief that had nothing to do with journalism. From my perspective, the most interesting issue was raised by member, Rich Garella, founder of Loud Mouth Films: What’s the proper role of the committee? As he sees it, the OPC should be an all-out advocate for press freedom in every circumstance, taking no account of the merits of the individual case. Just as Al Capone deserves a legal defense, so we should take the absolutist position that there can be no limits to press freedom, and we should leap to the defense of any journalist or would-be journalist who comes under fire. This has never been our own vision of our mission, but then, the committee has never been formally defined or given a mandate by the Board of Governors.

Perhaps, this is an issue we should discuss, particularly in view of the OPC’s increased visibility in recent years and our sensitivity to criticism. The WikiLeaks debate, for instance, triggered an article in the McClatchy newspaper chain; the writer, Nancy Youssef, got our position about right, but slightly misquoted co-chairman Jeremy Main and was unable to report the full debate because it was not open to be read by non-members. After some discussion among the committee members and President David Andelman, Jeremy wrote a modest letter of clarification. Co-chairman, Kevin McDermott, has suggested that in future, such forums should be available for non-members to read, but not to post comments, and I heartily endorse that idea. But Kevin has also suggested that if we want to take public positions on thorny issues and raise the OPC’s profile in general, we must be willing to take some heat for it, and I endorse that, too. The question remains: Should there be some process of vetting and approving the positions we take? How can this be done without being so cumbersome that we never speak out?

Perhaps, ironically in the end, we found ourselves taking a stand on the WikiLeaks controversy. When the White House, the Air Force and the Library of Congress (of all institutions!) tried to tell their people and their contractors that they should not have access to the leaked documents or to stories about them in the press, even on their home computers, the committee found this a clear violation of freedom of information. We wrote to Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, that this was clearly an over-stepping of the government’s authority and a foolish and futile effort, and asked him to “try to bring these people back to their senses.”

That, too, seems a dubious prospect, but we hope for the best.

Respectfully submitted by: Larry Martz, Co-chairman