GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Do growing economies promote or threaten media?

Friday, October 8, 2010 | 1:19 p.m. CDT

Byron Scott, professor emeritus, Missouri School of Journalism: Economic growth and relative government stability don’t always lead to press freedom. This uncomfortable truth comes to us every day. This week we examine the recent troubles of journalists in Turkey, where, according to the International Press Institute, 48 journalists are now in prison; in South Africa, where a severe (Protection) of Information Act and press complaints tribunal are being considered; and in India, a long-term trouble spot hailed in last week’s issue of The Economist as enjoying economic growth that should soon outpace China.

Is press freedom a key ingredient for true economic growth, or does it open up new dangers as journalists seek to report without censorship? Here to help us understand the events are Karin Deutsch Karlekar, managing editor of the annual Free Press Index by Freedom House, in New York City; Emre Kizilkaya, chief editor, Hürriyet Foreign News Service, Istanbul, Turkey; Raymond Louw, editor and publisher, Southern Africa Report, Johannesburg, South Africa; and Paul Wallace, MU professor emeritus of political science. Karin, can we actually say that free press and economics go together?


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Karin Deutsch Karlekar, managing editor, Freedom House, New York City: A look at our press freedom ratings shows there are some broad correlations between economically developed countries and press freedom. It is not a completely clear correlation, because some very poor countries have very high levels of press freedom and very rich and stable countries have lower levels of press freedom. Mali is a very poor country with a very free media, and Singapore is a very developed country with a very authoritarian political and closed media system. If you look at economic growth, it is even more complicated. You really have to look at the factors driving the growth. Some countries, for example, have very high levels of economic growth from finding oil and petrochemicals, so they can have high economic growth rates that come from one sector of the economy, but the political system can still be closed. So it is a very complicated relationship and there are no clear correlations.

Scott: We can see this specifically in several countries that are in the news and are considered to be growing economically. Emre, could you tell us the situation in Turkey?

Emre Kizilkaya, chief editor, Hürriyet Foreign News Service, Istanbul, Turkey: As you say, the correlation is not always clear with economic development and press freedom. The media structures of Turkey 10 years ago were more monopolized. Maybe four or five owners controlled at least 90 percent of newspapers and televisions, but nowadays the number is greater. For instance, if you look at the newspaper ownership, you will see more than 10 owners in Turkey. But on the other hand, the government is getting more authoritarian in terms of controlling the press.

Ten years ago, before the current pro-Islamist AKP government, Turkey was governed by national coalitions from both sides of the political spectrum. At that time, almost all journalists enjoyed greater freedom. But since 2003, we have a one-party government. And as they are getting more authoritarian, it is harder to work in Turkey as a journalist even though the economy is in better shape. For instance, in Turkey, as you said before, 48 journalists are in prison and more than 700 journalists are being tried and facing jail sentences.

Scott: In South Africa, there are some disturbing things happening at the legislative level. Raymond, tell us about the situation in South Africa.

Raymond Louw, editor and publisher, Southern Africa Report, Johannesburg, South Africa: This country was built under a nationalist party regime and the strongest economy in Africa, but it didn’t cherish a free and independent press. In 1994, there was a democracy of sorts for white people in South Africa under the previous government, and that was superseded by a full democracy where everybody had the vote in politics. That was a wondrous time for most of us who had been fighting the repression of the previous years. There was openness and transparency in the government and in society generally. When you rang up a government department and asked for information, they fell over themselves to provide you with it. But that was 16 years ago.

Now we are faced with protection of information, which is really a rewrite of the Protection of Information Act. It is the legislation protecting state secrets and describing how information can be classified. Our complaint against the bill is that it gives all-encompassing powers to the minister of state security, which enables him to declare information secret or to declare that it shouldn’t be secret any longer — all of which we believe will be tainted by a political agenda.

Scott: Paul, what about the situation in that global economic engine called India?

Paul Wallace, MU professor emeritus of political science, Columbia, Mo.: India, as usual, presents a paradox. Economic prosperity has come to India. This year they are now estimating nine-plus percent in terms of gross national product. That is an astounding percentage, and there are even projections that they will be higher than China’s in the future. More and more people in India are getting the benefit of either trickle down or flowing down. So there are over 300 million people in India who you can now easily categorize as middle or upper class. They are the ones, who if there is police repression — and the police are notorious for their repression throughout India — they have countervailing force.  They have the power of their positions, their money and their influence. So that is a plus.

On the other hand, India has been called “the land of a million mutinies.” There is always political violence in various places in India. We hear particularly now about the problems in Kashmir in northwest India, but there is also violence in northeast India. Both of these areas have special military provisions that limit the freedom of the press. There is also the Maoist, Baoist insurrection in central India. The paradox is greater press freedom for those who can use that freedom and need it for information, but when you have political violence, the press is repressed in many ways. As much as the government tries to clamp down on information, they find it impossible to do so. India is the land where every secret is publicly declared by some form of media or another. And print, broadcast, and web sources are now throughout India. So the government is unable really to control.

Scott: Karin, these are familiar patterns throughout the world, aren’t they?

Karlekar: Yes, unfortunately. Over the last few years, although many countries are showing significant forms of economic growth, there has been a bit of backsliding on the political side in terms of levels of democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association. This is particularly worrying, because press freedoms are one of the key factors contributing to healthy democracies, accountable government, low levels of corruption and transparency. So economic growth and media freedom don’t necessarily go together, but I would say that media freedom does go together with accountable government and transparency.

Scott: It sounds as if the trends in countries are certainly not toward transparency. Emre, what are the charges against these 700 journalists brought to court and the 48 in prison?

Kizilkaya: A journalist from Milliyet newspaper, Nadim Sener, was selected this year as one of the press freedom heroes by IPI. He is being tried for writing a book about the murder of Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist in Turkey. In the book, he reveals with official documents that this Armenian journalist was killed by a nationalist youth with the help of some state officials. He is being tried for 20 years. Another example is from Turkey’s Radikal newspapers. A correspondent for Radikal is being tried for seven to nine years for revealing state secrets. His trial is based in the criminal court, which is not being modernized by this current government, especially with the rise of new media. You can reveal these documents online, but if you put them on paper, you get tried with long prison sentences.

Scott: Of course state secrets are very loosely defined in many of these laws. Raymond Louw, is that the case in South Africa?

Louw: That is the problem. They have amended the legislation to refer to classification of information in the national interest, which is long ways from the national security interest. The national interest could relate to anything that occurs within the community or within government. But fortunately, they have said that as a result of our protests, they are withdrawing that portion of the bill. But we still believe that the description of what the content can be classified is far too wide. It should be as narrow as possible and as clearly defined as possible.

The other big threat is that the media appeals tribunal. The ruling African National Congress are considering introducing a Zimbabwe-type restrictive tribunal to try newspapers and journalists for having printed possibly false news — the falseness of that being decided by the state. There has also been reference that they want to imprison journalists, because the present ombudsman system requires newspapers to apologize and correct an error, but that is not good enough.

Scott: There has been an ombudsman and press council in South Africa for many years, has there not?

Louw: Yes, we have had a press council under the previous government, which was run by a retired judge. It was reasonably independent of government control. Now this particular media appeals tribunal will have government control, all of which means restrictions on the media. They want to introduce it because the press has been particularly active in uncovering corruption by highly placed government officials and politicians, and they want to stop that kind of bad publicity.

Scott: Let me shift the focus to self-censorship, among the reporters who will tell you, “Oh, we have a free press; we just know what not to write about.” Paul, do we see that in India these days?

Wallace: Yes, all kinds of pressures can be put on the media. In India, a good source of income for the free media independent of the government are the ads put in by state governments, which is a major source of revenue for the newspapers and influence the content. In addition, private ownership of the media can induce a kind of self-censorship. However, that is not the major concern in India, because there is enough competition. Information gets out in a variety of ways, and even those engaged in self-censorship can ignore a big story. There is very little the government can do in terms of controlling that news source. In Kashmir, the South Asian media commission has come down hard in criticizing the government for repressing the local media. This is being reported throughout the country. So there are controls in terms of “black laws” on printing, subsidies and so on.

Scott: Explain what black laws are.

Wallace: I mentioned the million mutinies — these are various political problems in various parts of the country that erupt in violence. But India is a subcontinent, and political violence is not going on all over the country at any time, so these are localized conflicts. They’re now in Kashmir, in the northeast, and in parts of central India.

When that happens, the national government passes certain laws. A typical one is the Prevention of (Terrorism) Act. That seems very reasonable, because you have political violence, terrorists are engaged and you want to take somewhat extraordinary measures to control them. A whole series of these acts have been passed in the last two to three decades; in fact, longer than that. As one expires, the reaction to it becomes negative and another one comes into play. Under those acts, the government takes extraordinary measures against people in terms of habeas corpus, human rights and the press.

Scott: That sounds very familiar.

Wallace: It happens all over the world. We even have that in terms of the Patriot Act here in the United States.

Louw: The South African security legislation is based on the same overtones. Our anti-terrorist legislation is based on the Patriot Act, which could land journalists in jail. Fortunately, they haven’t made use of that law to any large extent here. We don’t have the problems in India in terms of terrorism, but we are conscious that this law could be enacted at any time.

We also have the National Keypoints Act, where certain buildings, certain institutions and the security measures used at those institutions cannot be written about. Another problem with the National Keypoints Act is they don’t publish which buildings and which institutions are subject to the act. Fortunately, these laws are not used to the great extent that they appear to be used in India, but there is always the possibility. And we think it will be used when they bring in this Media Appeals Tribunal.

Wallace: Let me add that there are two mitigating conditions in India. One is there are human rights commissions at both the state and the national levels that do investigate these, and they have significant influence. The other and most important are political parties. India is a democracy. The incumbency factor usually works against those who hold office because of this strong criticism they place. And those criticisms and analyses could not take place without the media.

Scott: Emre, tell us what the future might be for the immediate welfare of journalists in Turkey.

Kizilkaya: The worst part about Turkey’s current situation is self-censorship. Just a few years ago, my newspaper covered a corruption story. A humanitarian organization linked to the government was siphoning off money from the donors and putting it into their own account in Germany. Right after that, the government gave us a tax penalty of $4.2 billion, so who can be so courageous as to write about such corruption stories in Turkey? Not only our newspaper but almost all newspapers in Turkey are scared of writing something against the interests of the government officials. So the future is not very bright, if you ask me, because the people of Turkey don’t really care about press freedom nowadays. I hope that is going to change.

Scott: Karin, let me give you about 60 seconds on this topic.

Karlekar: Self-censorship is a global problem as some of the panelists have pointed out, and it doesn’t occur only in the restricted environments but also in the free media environments. In Turkey, some of the main issues are the legal environment and threats of legal prosecution. In Mexico, you have a very high murder and violence rate against journalists, which is causing self-censorship. In other countries, economics are playing a factor in terms of withholding government advertising or bribing journalists directly. So there can be many reasons for self-censorship, but it is a growing concern. Even if laws are on the books and are never used, they hang over the head of journalists and may lead them to not write about certain issues. It is a more hidden factor in terms of press freedom but a very important one and something that needs to be looked at in each country.

Scott: Just a few concluding observations.  The International Monetary Fund ranks India 11th among all national economies, Turkey comes 17th, and South Africa 32nd. The press freedom rankings of Freedom House place the three in different neighborhoods — 76, 101, and 86, respectively. Clearly, the two can never be the same. But do they have to be so far apart?

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson, and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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