On May 2, a day before World Press Freedom Day 2008, I received an e-mail message from Internews Network, an NGO that specializes in media development around the world. The message promotes a new public service announcement (PSA) featuring Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, speaking on behalf of a group called The Elders, which includes, among others, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Kofi Annan. The advocacy message of the PSA is encapsulated in the following sentence: “Think of a world where everybody is afraid to speak out, then think of a world where no one is afraid to speak up.”
As Robinson continues to talk about the right to expression and access to information enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, images of people working in media in developing countries are shown, creating a strong “visual-verbal argument”, linking Robinson’s words about Article 19 and the role of media in promoting the rights contained therein.
A day before receiving the e-mail, I attended a public presentation of the results of a multi-nation poll on media freedom at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Entitled “Media Freedom around the World”, poll results were presented by Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org and the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland. Kull said the overall finding from the 20 nation study is that majorities in all nations polled -- China, Iran, Nigeria, Mexico, South Korea, the United States, and France, among others -- support the principle of press freedom (defined as “media [being] free to publish news and ideas without government control”). However, while supporting media freedom in general, majority of publics in a few countries, such as Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia, were of the opinion that “government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it thinks will be politically destabilizing.” In sum, Kull said that we can claim majorities of publics from various countries support a free media, with half wanting even more freedom, notwithstanding a few caveats (click here to access full report).
With all the attention these important global players were placing on the roles of the press and the news media in polities around the world, last Saturday morning, on World Press Freedom Day itself, I dusted off my copy of Four Theories of the Press by Siebert et al., a very influential book during its time (first published in 1956 but now considered outdated, e.g., see Nerone et al., 1995) and a seminal contribution to the comparative study of the press. In the introduction, the authors state the overall argument of the book, “… the press always takes on the form and coloration of the social and political structures within which it operates... We believe that an understanding of these aspects of society is basic to any systematic understanding of the press” (pp. 1-2). So the book argues that social and political structures determine the type of press that develops in a country. Half true, because we can also cite evidence of influence manifesting the other way, i.e., the press and news media helping to determine social and political realities.
Internews, with the help of Mary Robinson, has argued for the role of the press in supporting rights to information and expression. Similarly, in Four Theories of the Press, Siebert et al. claim that under the libertarian theory, “the press is conceived of as a partner in the search for truth” (p. 3). Other scholars have argued for the influence of political and social structures on the press/media system, although they have also posited influence going the other way. The missing piece, in my mind, is accounting for the effect public opinion may have on social and political structures as well as the press and other media. As WorldPublicOpinion.org's multi-nation poll on media freedom demonstrates, global publics support the principle of a free press, with a few caveats. But more than half of the 20 nations polled have consistently received low scores on press freedom indicators (e.g., Freedom House's Freedom of the Press 2008).
Every year, World Press Freedom Day would be a good time to check whether updated public opinion data are available on cross-national attitudes toward press/media freedom and compare figures with press/media freedom indicators. Now that we can measure public attitudes cross-nationally at increasingly lower cost and higher validity and reliability, I suspect that over time, we will find evidence of public opinion acting as an influential force driving the emergence of new types of news media systems around the world.
Photo Credit: UNESCO