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Free international media, a free society

Cindy Nguyen / June 24, 2014 02:00 PM

According to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, “Journalism provides a platform for informed discussion across a wide range of development issues.

”From environmental challenges and scientific progress to gender equality, youth engagement and peace building. Only when journalists are at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticize policies and actions can good governance exist.” 

The recent sentencing of journalists in Egypt raises serious concerns about freedom of the press, and whether detained journalists can rely on international intervention to avoid being sentenced for doing their job.

Australian Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has been sentenced to seven years' imprisonment for allegedly supporting former Prime Minister Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Convictions were also handed down to Greste’s Al-Jazeera colleagues Mohamad Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamad, and other foreign correspondents, sparking international outcry. Amenesty International says it is a “dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when journalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job”.

Peter Greste

                               Detained Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste

                                    PHOTO CREDIT: The Conversation

International dismay has largely been triggered by the lack of evidence from the prosecution, as well as the politicised intentions of the sentencing. Sarah Hynek and Andrea Teti said on The Conversation, “the judgments are part of the new Egyptian government’s strategy to marginalize the influence of Qatar”, where Al Jazeera is based, which raises the notion that foreign correspondents like Greste are being used as political ‘pawns’.

A sad reality of foreign correspondents’ work is the threat and fear of being persecuted in countries without press freedoms. Reporters Without Borders released a Press Freedom Index ranking the best to the worst countries based on censorship levels and violence towards the media.  Unsurprisingly the index sees democratic countries at the top of the list while dictatorial countries occupy the latter positions.

North Korea is ranked second-last by Reporters Without Borders. It has tight monitoring on the media with citizens having extremely limited access to information outside the country. A majority of North Korea's media coverage revolves around propaganda material. The movement of information is severely restricted. However, there is an increasing resistance movement, with some information coming in and out via the Chinese border. In an article in the New York Times, Choe Sang-Hung details how this information is leaked in and out of the North Korean borders. South Korean activists “slip into China to woo the few North Koreans allowed to travel there, provide cellphones to smuggle across the border, then post informers’ phoned and texted reports on Web sites".

China has recently introduced new restrictions banning Chinese journalists from conducting work outside of their national border. Journalists must now seek approval from their employees before commencing any sort of international work. Chinese journalist Ji Shuoming told the New York Times, “aggressive investigate journalists will find it hard to write articles without venturing outside their beats or regions". It would “put them at risk if their work draws the anger of any officials.” Press restrictions are heightened by bans on social media, with information coming in and out of China highly government-controlled.

Thanks in part to the spread of democracy in the Arab Spring uprisings, there has been building pressure for a free press across the Arab world. The intensity of opposing media attitudes is now at the forefront of international media thanks to widespread coverage of the Al-Jazeera case in Egypt, including social media cries to #FreeAJStaff. But admidst politcal volatility, the lack of press freedom in Egypt is symptomatic of the country's slow struggle for democracy and associated freedoms.

Greste is one of the many examples of journalists continually detained and persecuted in countries which have strong media governance. Four French journalists were recently released in Syria after being detained for ten months. After the lengthy trial and with Greste sentenced, his family and the Australian government continue to fight and hope for his release. Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke to the Australian about "options for presidential acts, presidential clemency, presidential pardons and so on", hopeful that justice will prevail, and the imprisoned journalists will be released.

Detaining journalists undermines the importance of international reporting. With Ban Ki-Moon's words that “only when journalists are at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticise policies and actions can good governance exist", we are reminded of the integral relationship between a free press and a free society.  

Check out Margaret Gee's other media news