What is democracy? That is the first question that is always asked by pro-regime elements, whether in 18th-century Britain or France or 21st-century Egypt or Bahrain, because their aim is to muddy the waters and oppose the spread of democratic freedom. Free and open access to factual information is the cornerstone right of all citizens of a free society. Journalists are the “Fourth Estate” —in the words attributed to Edmund Burke, by Thomas Carlyle— the watchdogs of the people’s access to truth.
The three estates were the “Lords Spiritual” (bishops of the Church of England), the “Lords Temporal” (the House of Lords) and the Commons. The members of the “Fourth Estate” sat in the reporter’s gallery of the parliament and were, by their influence as writers, researchers, editors and publishers, the most significant of the four groups in terms of their ability to move public opinion and channel the influence of popular sentiment into the decision-making of the government.
In other words, the press are the necessary foundation of political influence for the people. It is through the press and what it does for the dissemination of evidence and of fact-based independent analysis that the citizens of a free republic are able to monitor, judge and influence the actions of their government. It is through the press that the governed are able to ensure they are governed only in line with their informed consent.
Since the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, the war on journalists has escalated across the world. The chaos in Iraq and the attitudes of hardline regimes like that led by Vladimir Putin during his years as president of the Russian Federation, have led to the expanding of violent persecution of journalists across the world.
In the last 10 years, the spread of the Internet, and its open transfer of information across the world, has put authoritarian regimes on the defensive, and they have responded by lashing out at print reporters, bloggers and human rights activists. In high profile cases across the Caucasus, Russian operatives and pro-Russian regimes have assassinated journalists with impunity.
Most of those cases remain unsolved. Investigations have been curtailed, and human rights advocates involved in the investigations have been targeted. In Iraq, in Colombia, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, journalists have been targeted for abduction, arrest, abuse, and even death. In Iran, China, Egypt, Libya, Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, journalists are routinely detained, accused of spying, and used as props to make it seem the regime in question is combatting foreign infiltrators.
In all of these cases, it is understood that the methodology is intended to intimidate witnesses of all kinds, whether ordinary civilians, potential defectors or journalists and human rights advocates.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has been diligently tracking aggression against the press in nations with rising pro-democracy movements and mass demonstrations calling for change. They reported on Friday:
The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities today in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya to cease their attempts to prevent media from reporting on anti-government demonstrations. Bahraini authorities used live ammunition–including fire from a helicopter–against peaceful protesters and journalists, according to news reports. Pro-government thugs attacked at least two journalists in Yemen, and the Libyan government appeared to be shutting down Facebook, Twitter, and Al-Jazeera’s website as a means of silencing reporting on protests.
“Security forces firing on journalists from a helicopter is a dangerous escalation in Bahrain’s attempt to censor media coverage of the political turmoil,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. “The authorities must cease all hostile acts against journalists immediately and allow the press to work freely and securely.”
The regime of Hosni Mubarak, in its violent quest to cling to power, engaged in what many observers described as an “unprecedented” and coordinated attack on journalists across the nation, beating and detaining foreign journalists, falsely accusing them of being “infiltrators” or Israeli and/or Iranian “spies”.
The violent and “sustained” sexual assault on Lara Logan, a CBS reporter working in Cairo, on the day Mubarak resigned from power, has been blamed by some on the paramilitary “thugs” the regime hired to attack journalists. Sexual assault was reportedly a routine tactic used by Mubarak’s paramilitary mercenaries to attack women who were seen as critics or opponents of the regime.
While Mubarak was still in power, NPR reported that “reports of sexual abuse, harassment, and assault against women by government security forces are rampant”. The connection between abject corruption, attacks on the press, impunity and the brutalization of the civilian population, is clear.
We need to celebrate the committed and courageous work of the world’s truth-tellers, journalists who take the serious personal risk of entering into the dark, threatening corners of the world, or dare to lift the cloak that covers up political corruption, who risk their lives just for the opportunity to report facts to whomever might read or hear their words, as heroic defenders of democratic freedoms.
Their work, performed with no weapons, no legal power, no prosecutorial authority, often at great personal risk, is the necessary underpinning for any informed and widespread resistance to arbitrary power and abuse of whole populations. When the free and independent, and now international, press is heard explaining and denouncing illegitimate power grabs and pervasive abuses, it motivates the human conscience generally to reject those responsible and move forward independent of their corrupting methods and aims.
That is an heroic achievement, and a gift to the rest of us, given by human beings willing to stand between the truth and a lie, defining the difference with their own human dignity.