Anette Novak: Free speech a fundamental right

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World Press Freedom Day. Photo / Supplied
World Press Freedom Day. Photo / Supplied

The possibility to express oneself freely - without risk of reprisal - is one of mankind's most fundamental rights.

It is a right that we in the privileged West take as much for granted as electricity or clean tap water. But in most parts of the world, the contrary is a daily reality.

The rest of us are distantly aware.

We follow the uprisings on the news, we marvel at the explosive force of social media channels, and we hail the companies who enable the people to tell the world what is happening. But how many know that it's also Western technology that allows many crimes against human rights to continue?

Journalists are being killed. Seven so far this year, according to WAN-IFRA.

Reporters are being jailed.

It happens in Eritrea, where last year's Golden Pen of Freedom winner Dawit Isaak has been denied freedom for more than 10 years without trial, and in Ethiopia, where journalists Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson have been condemned to 11 years in prison for "terror crimes".

The violence is evident in the statistics. But its devastating effects on press freedom are often not as visible. How does one measure fear?

When a person's safety and freedom are impaired, when families are hurt physically as well as psychologically, then only individuals with extraordinary courage can guarantee that "press freedom" isn't just a nice idea.

It happens in Zimbabwe, where an editor who has been abused and jailed on numerous occasions relates how difficult it is to motivate the newsroom to continue the struggle for truth: How far will the journalists dig into a story when they know how high a price they, or even their families, might have to pay?

But the fear does not infect only reporters and editors. The voices of the citizens - the sources - are also silenced.

It happens in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen, where netizens are summarily punished with death. It happens in Mexico. In the former Soviet republics.

In a list of countries too long to publish.

Ice-cold winds blow over the democratic spring, when oppressive regimes and criminal organisations direct their violence against their compatriots.

It is sickening: not worthy of a nation in 2012's knowledge-based global society.

Almost even more sickening, however, is how member states of the UN and the EU, who officially condemn crimes against freedom of expression, let companies in their own backyards enable the persecution.

There are horrifying examples of how some telecommunication companies not only develop techniques used for surveillance and control, but also have delivered specific products to regimes who are notorious for their crimes against their people. In the media limelight, their directors speak eloquently of corporate social responsibility. But in reality, they put short-term profits before the basic values of humanity.

The technology is never bad in itself: it is how we choose to use it that dictates its impact.

I call on all friends of press freedom to do everything in your power to counter this development.

So let us start the debate at all possible levels. Shine the light on the bad guys.

French writer Albert Camus put it elegantly in his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech in 1957: "The honour of our profession will always have its roots in two difficult missions: to never lie about what you know - and to resist oppression."

I know there are many whistleblowers and truth-tellers around the world who dare to defy their fear. Now it is high time that we support them by protesting against the hypocritical states who call themselves "freedom fighters" but who, behind the fancy facade, sell tools to the oppressors. There will always be people who will try to suffocate the free word. Whether or not they succeed is up to us.

World Press Freedom Day

tinyurl.com/5urqv4d.

Anette Novak is a World Editors Forum board member based in Sweden.

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