Schiff, Pence speak out for press freedom

“Information is power, which is precisely why many governments attempt to control the press to suppress opposition and preempt dissent,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who three years ago founded the Congressional Caucus for Freedom of the Press. “Far too often, the reporters and editors who demand reform, accountability, and transparency find themselves at risk,” he went on. “The censorship, intimidation, imprisonment, and murder of these journalists are not only crimes against these individuals, but they also impact those who are denied access to their ideas and information.”

The other caucus co-chairman is U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican. “As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press,” said Pence.” A free press ensures the flow of information to the public, and let me say, during a time when the role of government in our lives and in our enterprises seems to grow every day–both at home and abroad–ensuring the vitality of a free and independent press is more important than ever.”

The House co-chairmen (the Senate co-chairs are Chris Dodd and Richard Lugar) also issued a joint statement for World Press Freedom Day on Sunday that cited the same figures noted last week by President Barack Obama.  “Since this day was first celebrated, 692 journalists have been killed,” reads the statement by Schiff and Pence. “Adding to this tragic figure are the hundreds more each year who face intimidation, censorship, and arbitrary arrest–guilty of nothing more than a passion for truth and a tenacious belief that a free society depends on an informed citizenry.”

The co-chairmen raised the case of Roxana Saberi, the journalist with dual U.S. and Iranian citizen jailed in Tehran. She is currently on a hunger strike to protest her detention. Schiff and Pence also raised the detentions of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee in North Korea.  All three journalists are being held under dubious charges, according to CPJ research. “We condemn these trumped-up charges and call for the immediate release of these journalists,” the two congressmen said.

The free press co-chairmen also noted their recent introduction of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which would, among other things, require the State Department to provide a separate, annual report on press freedom conditions worldwide to Congress. Pence noted his introduction of the Free Flow of Information Act, which has passed the House and is up for consideration in the Senate. “The bill provides a qualified privilege of confidential sources to journalist,” said Pence, “which is sadly missing in federal law–and enables reporters to shield sources in most instances from disclosure.”

Schiff raised the case of a Sri Lankan journalist who has long written from a pro-Tamil viewpoint at the same time that he has documented human rights abuses by Sri Lankan government forces as well as by ethnic Tamil rebel forces known by their acronym as the LTTE.

“J.S. Tissainayagam, a contributor and editor for a number of print and online publications, will stand trial on Wednesday, and he faces a possible 20-year sentence if he is convicted. He is being prosecuted for allegedly inciting communal disharmony related to articles that he wrote as early as in 2006,” Schiff noted.  “In March of 2008, J.S. was arrested under emergency regulations and held without habeas corpus for more than five months before being charged. His trial is set to resume on May 6, but it is our hope the Sri Lankan government will drop these baseless charges and release J.S. before the trial resumes.”

Later this month, Schiff plans to host a Special Order Hour on the House floor that will focus on press freedom abuses in Sri Lanka. Last year the free press caucus founder focused a Special Order Hour on China as the world’s leader jailer of journalists. In 2007, Rep. Schiff devoted a Special Order Hour to Russia, profiling journalists who were murdered.