Remember 1989? The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of democracy and democratic institutions in the old Communist bloc, including Mother Russia, inspired a new generation of journalists in places where a free press had been a state crime. Other journalists in other places, such as Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and China, were showing a new boldness and courage that gave rise to the hope that we were entering a golden age of press freedom.
Now, 15 years later, the glow of the golden age has been tempered by new realities. The courage and boldness remain, but the war in Iraq, the continuing conflict along the Afghan-Pakistani border, and the bloody struggle in the Russian republic of Chechnya have elevated journalistic risk to anxiety-inducing, life-threatening levels.
Those dangers, in turn, are accompanied by an emotional and political climate in which the role of the press is constantly under strain. Wherever wars are fought and for whatever reason, however irrational or justified, journalists in the thick of the fighting and decision-making are central to understanding the brutal truths of combat. They must withstand assaults on their patriotism and questions about their motivations. For reporters on the front lines and editors back in the newsrooms, war coverage requires extra measures of resolve, composure, and toughness. That long-enduring description of combat–the fog of war–is equally applicable to the business of reporting on combat.
In the Middle East, the political and emotional climate is complicated by a new force: aggressive, Arabic-language satellite channels that have quickly established their place in this vastly expanded universe of news and information with their strong points of view. They, too, have come under attack, physically and intellectually. The satellite operation Al-Arabiya lost three reporters and five other employees in Iraq–the highest casualty rate of any news organization in 2004–even as it endured government censorship there.
Of course, the dangers to press freedom and journalists are not just in the Middle East, or the subcontinent, or Russia. They rest in the heavy hand of Fidel Castro, who remains determined to court the Western press while imprisoning Cuban reporters. More than 20 journalists languished in Cuban jails at year’s end–many held far from their families, in unsanitary conditions, with inadequate food and medical care–for doing nothing more than expressing their views. The threats pervade in China, too, where the rulers are eager for consumers in free-market countries to buy their goods–but far less inclined to let their own citizens have unfettered access to free-market information. With 42 editors and writers in prison at year’s end, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2004 for the sixth year in a row.
The United States presents itself as a patron of free press rights abroad–all while threatening to jail reporters at home who abide by the long-established principle of protecting their sources. In 2004, CPJ’s annual list of journalists imprisoned around the world included a U.S. reporter, Jim Taricani of WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I. He was sentenced to six months of home confinement for refusing to reveal who leaked a government surveillance tape to him.
Nonetheless, as the world is being reshaped for a new century, I am much more encouraged than discouraged about the place of the press, print and electronic, in the long march to a time when independent journalism will be an expectation, not an exception, in every culture and political entity.
The Internet, satellite television, and other powerful new tools of delivery represent a stunning advance in our ability to inform people everywhere about their immediate interests and the wider world. These tools are remaking the landscape–from Vietnam, where the Web is an ever-growing outlet for independent writing, to Iran, where news blogging has drawn legions of avid readers in defiance of government censors.
Technology alone, of course, is not the answer. It will do us little good to wire the world if we short-circuit our common personal and professional obligations as journalists to advance the case of a free press aggressively and find common cause with courageous journalists, wherever they are.
Tom Brokaw, former anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” reported from the scene when the Berlin Wall fell, interviewed world figures from the Dalai Lama to Vladimir Putin, and covered NATO airstrikes on the former Yugoslavia. He continues to contribute to NBC News.