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World: New Technologies And Old-Fashioned Bravery As Press Freedom Day Marked

By Catherine Fitzpatrick

As journalists around the globe celebrate World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, it remains true that the single greatest factor affecting the level of press freedom in any country is the willingness of reporters to fight for their own freedom.

While advances like text-messaging, smaller and less expensive video cameras, and wireless Internet accessibility have created a news-content boom, old-fashioned qualities like personal bravery and willingness to sacrifice one's freedom remain essential to press freedom.
Arguably the year's most emblematic image was when a Ukrainian sign-language interpreter on state TV refused to sign an official news bulletin declaring Viktor Yanukovych the winner of the rigged elections.

This struggle by journalists, combined with the increasing public demands for fresh and unbiased news, were central to the past year's democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and vital for the relatively successful and violence-free elections in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this struggle put them at grave risk in a number of countries; the Committee to Protect Journalists recorded an alarming seven journalists' contract-style murders in Russia in the last four years. They were a jarring reminder of not only the limits of new media to deliver a story with greater protection and less state interference, but also the risks of old-fashioned digging.

Innovate And Inform

Technological advances have revolutionized the way journalists and the public interact to allow people to become better informed about issues and place new demands on the government. 2004-05 saw the tide of mobile phones, pagers, text messaging, and wireless Internet already surging in the West to wash into Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Demonstrators in Kyiv or Bishkek or Beirut could instantly capture digital photographs and videotape of peaceful protest as well as police brutality and instantly transmit such images by e-mail to supporters anywhere without even going back to their desks -- an especially effective tool when police were raiding and closing their offices. In Ukraine, real-time reporting by Western visitors as well as local media and NGOs -- enhanced by the Internet, mobile phones, and wireless laptops -- was crucial to uncovering election fraud to the public. Such enhanced reporting was also vital to the intricate job of enlisting Western leaders in a timely fashion to repudiate the results of elections -- ambassadors' quiet but widely redistributed e-mail messages and lists with their strategic blind copies can be as important as publicly accessed media on the Internet.

In Kyrgyzstan, the success of demonstrators in pressuring the reform causes and the resignation of President Askar Akaev was instantly communicated to the world in minute-by-minute accounts spread by e-mail using websites like (Russian-language speakers have a ready-made pun for their work in the coincidence that "net," an ending for some kinds of web addresses, also means "no," so that the dissident site spells out "No to Akaev.")

Still, the lower-income populations of countries in transition and servicing difficulties mean such new gadgets are not yet creating the thousands of wired and coordinated activists envisaged by Howard Rheingold in "Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" (Basic Books, October 2003).

Reporting Challenges

The rising tide of new and more accessible media also created challenges for journalists in establishing credibility with readers as the old boundaries eroded between covering news and making news. Often when police beat or arrested journalists, they could claim they were indistinguishable from demonstrators. The gray area between suppression of the media and suppression of opposition parties with press organs was explored time and again by media-freedom advocates. The gray area between suppression of the media and suppression of opposition parties with press organs was explored time and again by media-freedom advocates. The dominant position that has emerged is that even journalists who are closely identified with opposition parties -- and in some cases might even serve in leadership positions in those parties -- must be defended because they still serve a role informing the public and providing a means for citizens' expression, particularly in a restrictive media environment. Arrests or punitive fines of editors in Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Belarus often fell into this category.

Journalists covering the increasing number of terrorist attacks by individuals looking to manipulate media to their ends also faced tough decisions -- about airing tapes of hostage taking and grisly beheadings, for instance -- in an effort to inform the public without becoming a mouthpiece for terror.

The unprecedented demand for coverage of conflicts 24 hours a day, seven days a week led more journalists to take greater risks and stay for longer periods in Iraq and other war zones. So just as the new technologies make it possible to e-mail and talk instantly even in the midst of combat, so they also prompt people to embark on more dangerous assignments and attempt more to keep their editors and their publics satisfied in their demand for fresh content.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 23 journalists and 16 support staff -- drivers, interpreters, fixers, and guards -- were killed while working in Iraq in 2004. In all, 36 journalists and 18 support workers have died since March 2003, making the Iraqi conflict -- one of the most reported-on wars in history -- one of the most dangerous for journalists in recent memory.

The Web As A Weapon

The number of Internet users steadily rose in many countries still listed as "partly free" or even "not free" by Freedom House, the U.S.-based democracy monitoring and advocacy organization. Even in the most repressive of settings, such as Turkmenistan, brave reporters can be found who record the government's many human rights violations and the efforts of ordinary people to counter them and send them out via e-mail or upload them to Internet pages. E-mail remains the most operative part of the Internet for most users because use is limited by slow-loading pages due to poor telephone infrastructure along with the high cost of subscriptions and transferring high amounts of data. While Internet users are a fraction of the numbers of state viewers, they do have a significant impact in shaping the views of the intelligentsia and the media in particular.

Their importance becomes evident when we see the lengths to which some governments have gone to close down independent web pages -- or to imitate popular pages, such as in Uzbekistan. When the Russian Foreign Ministry found it could not beat the game of numerous opposition groups and independent media, with journalists creating alternative news sites to counter state propaganda, it joined them with sponsored sites like, capitalizing on the importance of Russian-language media in the Central Asian media space where it is perceived as less biased.

Websites of established independent media enable some journalists to keep virtual offices functioning to survive government crackdowns on their real offices, for example "Respublika" of Kazakhstan. That publisher survives as virtual outlets online, even when the editor is forced into exile -- although of course old-fashioned, real-world methods of police detention circumscribe the power of virtuality.

Arguably the year's most emblematic image for many a post-Soviet journalist was the moment when a Ukrainian sign-language interpreter on state television refused to sign an official news bulletin declaring the administration's anointed candidate in the presidential balloting, Viktor Yanukovych, the winner of those rigged elections. Viewers were first startled, then emboldened, to see her signing that the government was lying. When state-employed journalists were able to follow suit and break with their state-loyalist editors' instructions on how to cover the news, a corner was turned. Many state-employed journalists had been waiting in the wings for years, some to make use of their Western-sponsored training undertaken on the notion that they might one day make use of their dormant skills.

Yet it took a few courageous individuals to break the mold and create the necessary space for others to follow. In the end, regardless of the availability of old or new media, the critical decision of at least one person to tell the truth can tip the scales for a country that suffers a lack of press freedom.

Click here to see RFE/RL's "Press Freedom Day" webpage.