Most of the time, let’s face it, journalists just do not get good press. The very word “reporter” is often used or interpreted as a smear. Newspaper readers and television viewers alike regularly complain to news organizations about their employees’ bias, incompetence and bad grammar. And for all their rhetoric about press freedom, the powerful too often treat journalists as, at best, a kind of malodorous underclass — vaguely necessary people whom they prefer to see as little of as possible. At worst, they treat them like criminals or subversives, as the world was reminded again last Tuesday when the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) handed out this year’s International Press Freedom Awards in New York.
When U.S. President George W. Bush visited China this month, he and Chinese President Hu Jintao may have differed on trade, piracy and human rights, but they showed a unified front in their disdain for the press. Reporters were not allowed to ask questions at a joint news conference in Beijing, and when Mr. Bush did meet with a few of them later, he soon grew impatient and turned to leave. Unfortunately, the ornate double doors he tried to exit through were locked, eliciting this candid admission: “I was trying to escape.”
Escape whom? Only a group of reporters trying to do their often tedious and thankless job of keeping tabs on a powerful political leader.
It is a pity that Mr. Bush did not resist the temptation to take a shot at the press. Had he thought about it, he could have used the occasion to model the kind of respect for its mission that he pays lip service to in speeches — freedom of the press as a pillar of democracy, and all that. It’s an ideal China’s leaders have no use for, but that is all the more reason for the so-called leader of the free world to show by his words and actions that others do.
As it happens, the reporters who got the presidential cold shoulder in Beijing are among the lucky ones. The worst they really have to put up with covering such do-nothing diplomatic junkets is boredom. Last week’s CPJ awards dinner drew attention to some journalists — including one in China — who have a much, much harder time doing their jobs.
They have such a hard time, in fact, that two of the four honorees were not even able to come to New York to accept their awards in person. One of those two — China’s Shi Tao, 37 — couldn’t make it because he is in prison, serving a 10-year sentence on charges of “leaking state secrets abroad.” An editor for a business newspaper in Hunan province, he was arrested a year ago for posting on the Internet parts of a Propaganda Department directive instructing the media how to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square suppression of prodemocracy demonstrators. That’s a pretty restrictive interpretation of state secrets. According to the CPJ, Mr. Shi’s imprisonment “highlights the Chinese government’s intense efforts to control the Internet, the only alternative to China’s officially sanctioned print and broadcast media.”
But China is far from the only abuser of press freedoms. The other no-show in New York last week was Lucio Flavio Pinto, 56, the publisher and editor of a bimonthly newspaper in Brazil’s Amazon region. For reporting on drug trafficking, environmental degradation and political and corporate corruption in the Amazon, he has been physically assaulted and, says the CPJ, “subjected to a wave of spurious lawsuits” that effectively prevent him from traveling.
Also being honored Tuesday was Galima Bukharbaeva, 31, an Uzbek journalist who faces reprisals for reporting on the May 13 massacre in Andijan, in northeastern Uzbekistan, which she witnessed, and is now living in exile in the United States. Ms. Bukharbaeva could pick up her award, in other words, but she cannot take it home.
Finally, there was Beatrice Mtetwa, 47, a lawyer rather than a journalist, who has defended numerous journalists in press freedom cases in her native Zimbabwe — “at great personal risk,” according to the CPJ citation. Ms. Mtetwa worked on behalf of the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s sole independent daily newspaper, until the government shut it down in 2003 and is still defending many of the newspaper’s journalists against criminal charges.
The stories of these four courageous people put the media’s mission everywhere in perspective — for journalists themselves as well as for their critics. Those who, like Mr. Bush, dislike reporters because they are pushy and disrespectful are reminded of what those qualities can accomplish. And reporters are reminded of the essential nobility of what they do, something it must be easy to forget when they are so used to hearing the opposite.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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