The wide range of publication and broadcasting media available today, as well as the sheer amount of information, means it's becoming impossible for governments to control stories – although this doesn't stop them trying. In the face of increasing repression, harassment and intimidation of the media, let's be grateful on World Press Freedom Day 2011 for the technology that is liberating stories from the shackles of government control.
In the grand scene of human existence we haven’t been well informed for very long. Eight-hundred short years ago, many cultures didn’t have a written script and books were penned laboriously by hand. News was transmitted by messenger, usually on foot, and received by whoever was in power. The common folk – you and me – had no idea what was going on in the world, let alone why. Our world view was restricted to what we could hear and see for ourselves – and tidings and tales from the occasional passing traveller. Information, when it was disbursed, was done so at the behest of the chief or sultan or king, and usually served one purpose – to maintain his grip on power.
Oh, how the chiefs and sultans and kings of today (and the presidents – especially the presidents) wistfully long for those days! When their subjects were unencumbered by the rights and freedoms which make ruling in the 21st century such a fiddly and complicated business. Especially the one about the freedom of the press.
For things have changed in the intervening years. The printing press meant mass production of books was possible, allowing information to travel with far greater ease than it had before. Not quickly, mind; books took months to print and even longer to reach their destinations. This began in Europe in the 1400s, but only reached Africa much later when the serious colonisation of the continent began. Newspapers followed a few centuries later, once paper became more affordable. The men (it was only men) running those early newspapers were the first journalists as we might recognise them today.
In the next few centuries, newspapers became more and more prevalent until almost every town in the world had its own. People began to expect to be informed. Then they began to demand to be informed. Businesses and rulers and governments all found themselves under scrutiny, having to justify themselves and their actions to a populace who knew what was happening and, moreover, what should be happening. The subjects of the coverage often didn’t enjoy the attention and fought back viciously. Throughout history, journalists have been threatened, intimidated, beaten and killed for trying to report stories. Governments have also tried, with varying degrees of success, to subvert the profession itself. Though used as early as the 19th century, full-scale government use of the media to enforce control and coerce support came to the fore in World War I. Germany’s Nazi regime and subsequently the Russian and Chinese communists made propaganda a fine art, and it has been widely copied by governments all over the world.
Clearly, rulers are scared of what might happen if the masses have an unfiltered and unregulated flow of information – especially if we know what they’d prefer was kept secret. Hardcore propaganda aside, actually controlling the flow of information became close on impossible as first radio, then TV, and finally the Internet meant there are now so many different sources of news available that no one can even monitor it all, never mind control it. Journalists in the 21st century have an unprecedented number of ways to tell their stories: They can write for a newspaper, or a magazine, or a website, they can blog, podcast, broadcast on radio, they can put together a self-made TV report, they can Tweet, they can use Facebook, they can even SMS their reports.
It is these technological advances that will, eventually, guarantee the freedom of the press. For governments will never stop trying to control information; that’s just what governments do, as they have throughout history. The United Nations won’t stop them, no matter how many beautifully worded resolutions they pass about protecting the Freedom of the Press or how many special days, such as today – which it designated as World Press Freedom Day – they dedicate to reminding “governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom”. As if governments have simply forgotten and a gentle reminder, as well as some video blogs, will make the difference.
But when information starts coming so thick and fast governments simply can’t keep up, then we will have realised a substantive freedom of the press. This is already happening. During the Egyptian revolution, the government did everything it could to restrict the flow of information. The newspapers and television stations were immediately muzzled. The cellphone companies were pressured into cutting service. Internet service providers were shut down. But none of this prevented the stories from getting out – stories of massive protests, of police brutality, of the deaths of demonstrators. Somehow, in the midst of an authoritarian state exercising its powers of information control to the maximum, the media, be it social or professional, found freedom.
And so, this World Press Freedom Day, we should celebrate the fact that governments are no longer able to muzzle the media as completely as in the past. But that doesn’t mean the battle for a free press is over. Our leaders are canny and learn quickly - expect Internet regulation to increase hugely in years to come. But for now, let’s just enjoy the victory, and remember all the journalists whose dedication to informing the people has brought us to where we are today. FAM