Ten years ago, the Soviet government mounted the last furious defense of its crumbling empire. As Lithuanian citizens set up a vigil outside the television tower of Vilnius, the nation’s capital, Soviet forces moved to break up the protests with tanks and troops. Fourteen people died on the night of Jan. 13, 1991, and almost 1,000 more were injured. But the Soviet effort failed. The Baltic states continued their drive for independence, the government in Moscow faltered and the Soviet Union dissolved.
The bravery of those unarmed Lithuanian citizens stunned the Soviet government and inspired democrats around the world. In some ways, it is fitting that that confrontation occurred where it did: under the TV tower. We too easily overlook the role of media. We see it as a source of entertainment, a purveyor of trends, tastes and tacky programs, rather than a guarantor of political and social rights.
The citizens of the Czech Republic are well aware of that basic role. In recent weeks, they have taken to the streets in the largest protests in that country since the “Velvet Revolution” that ended communist rule in 1989. They have been demanding the dismissal of Mr. Jiri Hodac, who late last year was appointed director of the Czech Television Council. Journalists claimed that Mr. Hodac had close ties to political leaders, primarily Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, and would politicize the news. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of ordinary Czechs; President Vaclav Havel rallied to their cause. Last week, Mr. Hodac resigned, citing health concerns. Last Friday, the Parliament voted to dismiss the entire Czech Television Council, claiming that the supervisory body had failed to do its job and protect the public interest.
In Russia, by contrast, the government of President Vladimir Putin seems to be doing its very best to silence that country’s independent media. It is no coincidence that public prosecutors are harassing Mr. Vladimir Gusinsky, owner of the Media-MOST empire, the only major media outlet that has consistently challenged Mr. Putin’s policies. After driving Mr. Gusinsky into exile last year, government officials last week raided the homes of two top Media-MOST executives, looking for documents on the group’s financial assets. The campaign has triggered international protests, as well as a warning by the Union of Journalists of Russia that there were “grounds for concern for the freedom of the press.”
There is a very good reason why most coups start with the seizure of television and radio stations: All tyrants and dictators want to control the media. Of course, the process works in reverse as well. The fight to liberate Yugoslavia from the grip of former President Slobodan Milosevic began in the media and only in its last stages did it take to the streets. That is why governments such as those in China and Myanmar are keeping as tight a grip as possible on the Internet and any other technology that provides citizens with an alternative view of the truth and the state-sponsored version of reality. Reporters Sans Frontieres, a nongovernmental organization, has identified 20 countries that restrict their citizens’ access to information; it calls them “enemies of the Internet.”
That is also why democrats view with extreme skepticism any attempt to fetter the media. We like to believe that an independent, vigorous press is the best way to discover the truth, and government controls that specifically target the media are too easily twisted to stifle and silence opinions that might challenge “official” views. That is why the Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association has challenged the Justice Ministry’s interim report calling for a body to probe allegations of human-rights violations by the media.
That does not mean that the media are free to report what they please, as they please. Freedom comes with considerable responsibilities. The media have an obligation to ensure that their reporting is accurate and fair, and that every effort is made to allow competing views to be heard. A uniformity of views does the public a disservice, no matter whether it is imposed by the government or internally, through self-censorship.
We should always be suspicious of those who claim that the public is not ready or able to tell truth from fiction, or able to distinguish sense from nonsense. In a democracy, our audience — the public — is the ultimate decision-maker. Suggesting that it somehow needs “help” reveals a lack of faith that goes to the very heart of democracy itself. It discredits the patriots who, throughout history, have stood up to guns, bayonets and tanks and have been willing to stake their lives on ideas and their ability to express them freely.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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