Yesterday, U.S. president Barack Obama signed the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which requires the U.S. State Department to specifically highlight press freedom issues in its annual review of countries' human rights. According to news reports, the annual human rights review will now explicitly identify whether countries participate in or condone press freedom violations.
What, if any, effect will this have on efforts to promote independent media around the world? Some would say that, at the nuts-and-bolts level, not much. Reforming and opening media sectors requires hard work, including coalition building, technical training, and sustained effort by multiple actors. Rhetoric and reports cannot on their own improve any individual country's press freedom environment.
However, at the policymaking level, it is important to have the U.S. president publicly commit to the ideals of press freedom in such a visible manner. Although the annual U.S. human rights review may ruffle diplomatic feathers, it also highlights human rights issues and gives them a weight few other documents can. Against this backdrop, a high-level commitment to press freedom can further legitimize efforts to promote open, independent media. It can also ensure that press freedom advocates in authoritarian countries know that a spotlight is shining on their efforts, as well as the efforts of those who would seek to stop them.
Of course, in the context of the broader effort to promote good governance, ensuring press freedom is just one piece of the puzzle. As then-Senator Obama noted on a 2006 trip to Kenya, press freedom must be "nurtured and cultivated and the citizenry has to value it." This last piece - a citizenry that values its press freedoms - is often neglected both conceptually and in practice. Without the demand for press freedom from the public, a thriving media is vulnerable to both attack and atrophy. Hence, the flip side of the press freedom coin is a media-literate public that demands accountability and thrives on open debate and discussion.
Photo Credit: Freedom House, Map of Press Freedom 2010