Freedom to Suppress


We must have planned development, and the role of the media has to be planned, too. Its role must be strictly defined for maximum contribution to development. A nation in a hurry to develop is like a nation in a state of emergency: freedom to criticize must be restricted by government according to its priorities.
—Zimbabwe journalist Chen Chimutengwenda

Just what those ideas mean in practice is made clear by recent events:

• Last November, Nicaragua's Sandinista government prohibited press coverage of its banning of an opposition political rally. Two weeks earlier the Sandinista-dominated journalists' union had voted to "condemn and repudiate" the independent newspaper La Prensa for daring to publish a resolution by the Inter-American Press Association asking repeal of the country's restrictive press laws.

• In January, the government of South Africa "banned" two leading black journalists and permanently shut down two black-owned newspapers. Simultaneously, the black-run government of Zimbabwe was purchasing a controlling share in that country's only newspaper chain.

• In March, Egypt's upper house issued 199 regulations governing the behavior of journalists and their publications, implementing a 1979 constitutional change making newspapers the fourth branch of government.

• In April, the Uruguayan government jailed the managing editor of Opinar, the country's only opposition newspaper, for refusing to name the source of a news story criticizing the State-run university. That same month the government of Indonesia banned all TV advertising as "detrimental to the spirit of development."

• And in June, the Jordanian government closed down for 10 days the country's largest newspaper for running an article "harmful to the public interest."

These examples shock Americans used to taking freedom of speech and press for granted. But they are examples of business as usual in the Third World. And if the elite bureaucrats of UNESCO have their way, that sort of government control and management of journalism will be extended to foreign correspondents as well as domestic journalists.

UNESCO's vehicle is something called the New World Information Order. In essence it would be an international agreement that news should be looked on as a tool for promoting "development" and "peace." To ensure that news serves these ends, UNESCO would adopt a code of journalistic ethics and license foreign journalists, thereby denying access (via license revocation) to those who refuse to toe the mark.

UNESCO has been busy putting these ideas into practice. Already, 15 newspapers have received $432,000 in UN grants to run puff-pieces promoting the idea of aid to the Third World. And a UNESCO-subsidized news service called Interpress rewrites government news releases and promotes UNESCO's viewpoint. Interpress's head favors nationalization of the press to satisfy "social needs," justifying State ownership "to assure greater social justice and self-determination."

The idea that news should be a tool of government was launched by the Soviet Union at a UNESCO meeting in 1972. In response to a 1976 Soviet draft on the subject, UNESCO appointed a 16-member commission headed by former Irish official Sean MacBride. After several years of wrangling and infighting, the MacBride Commission published a 160,000-word report advocating a "guided" press as a tool of national development, controls on international news agencies, and the especially controversial licensing and code-of-ethics provisions.

The MacBride Commission report was the focus of heated debate at a UNESCO meeting last fall in Belgrade. Although US commission member Elie Abel made an impassioned defense of private ownership of news media and strongly opposed licensing and controls, as did the British delegation, in the end only the Swiss delegation walked out. The other 153 endorsed a compromise resolution calling for further study and another conference in 1983.

Advocates of the UNESCO proposal argue that news from the Third World is dominated by four Western news agencies that are biased against developing countries, reporting mostly the bizarre and sensational. While the four—AP, UPI, Reuters, and Agence France-Presse—do generate 90 percent of daily world news flow, the charge of selective coverage is hard to support. Third World newspapers in Asia, for example, only use 20 percent of the 100,000 words of Third World news provided daily by the four services. And in most of the 85 Third World countries, it is the government itself that subscribes to the news services, editing and selecting what goes out to the newspapers and broadcasters.

Third World governments—even in semifree countries—are notorious in their control of news. The Malaysian government exercises total control of TV news; predictably, it is mostly bland "good news" about the government's accomplishments. Egypt's President Sadat puts it bluntly: "We cannot allow our press, which shapes public opinion, to be controlled by an individual or by an opinionated and temperamental newspaper editor.…No, the press is the property of the people and will remain so." In Jamaica the former government of Michael Manley—frustrated by the opposition of the independent Daily Gleaner—set up its own Jamaica Daily News. Its charter required it to promote egalitarianism, not elitism; to oppose reaction; to support the Third World in the North-South dialogue; and to support a mixed economy.

That is what a "new world information order" comes down to: control and manipulation of the news to support the objectives of elites who relish government power.

Fortunately, Western journalists are finally waking up to the seriousness of this threat to freedom. The Inter-American Press Association denounced the whole idea at its conference in Barbados in April. In May, the World Press Freedom Committee, representing 60 print and broadcast organizations from 24 countries, met in Talloires, France, and decided to fight rather than compromise any longer. And in June, US Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams warned that the United States might quit UNESCO if the organization persists in trying to restrict press freedom.

"None love the messenger who bears bad news," wrote Sophocles. Nobody is asking dictators and bureaucrats to love the messengers—but it's high time they learned to live with them.