People everywhere support free media

by Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service

Sixty years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserted the individual's right to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media", it appears that most of the world's people agree, at least in principle.

According to a major new survey of more than 18,000 adults in 20 countries released on the eve of International Press Freedom Day May 3, an average of 56 percent said they believe that media "should have the right to publish news and ideas without government control".

At same time, an average of 36 percent of respondents -- concentrated mostly in Russia, several Arab states, China, and Indonesia -- believe "the government should have the right to prevent the media from publishing things that it thinks will be politically destabilising".

And while strong majorities in every country agree with the notion that their compatriots should have the right to read publications from other countries, including those that might be considered enemies, significant minorities in India, South Korea, Egypt, and the Palestinian Territories disagree.

The survey, which was conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org (WPO), a project of the University of Maryland's Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), between January and March, also found that more than eight out of 10 respondents worldwide consider a free press unfettered by government control to be either "very" (53 percent) or "somewhat important" (29 percent). The strongest feelings in that regard were found in Latin America, Egypt, South Korea, and Nigeria.

The new survey, part of a series conducted by WPO earlier this year to probe global attitudes toward human rights and other key global issues, comes amid growing concern about press freedom around the world, particularly since the onset of the "global war on terror" after the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001.

Indeed, Freedom House, a group with historically close ties to the U.S. government that has monitored press and other rights around the world for some 30 years, concluded in an annual assessment earlier this week that global press freedom underwent "a clear decline" in 2007, continuing what it called a six-year negative trend.

"For every step forward in press freedom last year, there were two steps back," said the group's executive director, Jennifer Windsor, who noted that, despite some improvements in a few countries, new government restrictions on the press, violence, intimidation, and the increased use of libel laws against journalists contributed to significant reverses overall, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, South Asia, and several African countries.

"We are particularly concerned that while abuses of press freedom continued unabated in restrictive environments such as China, threats are also apparent in countries with an established record of media freedom and in newer democracies in Central Europe and Africa," said researcher Karin Deutsch Karlekar.

The 20 countries covered in the new WPO survey included five of the world's most populous nations -- China, India, the United States, Russia, and Indonesia -- as well as Argentina, Mexico, and Peru in Latin America; Britain, France, and Poland in Europe; Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories (PT), and Turkey in the greater Middle East; South Korea in Asia; and Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Taken together, the 20 countries make up nearly 60 percent of the world's population.

Respondents in most of the 20 countries were asked six questions about their attitudes towards free media, including the Internet.

"The principle that the media should be free of government control receives robust support from all corners of the world," said WPO and PIPA director, Steven Kull.

An average of 60 percent of respondents, including majorities in all but two of the countries -- Jordan and Iran -- said "people should have the right to read whatever is on the Internet," as opposed to an average of 32 percent who said the government should have the right to prevent people from having access to some things that appear there.

The majority view was particularly strong in Azerbaijan (79 percent), the U.S. (75 percent), Nigeria (72 percent), and China (71 percent). Jordan was the only country where a majority (63 percent) thought government should be able to prevent access.

The importance accorded press freedom was most strongly felt in Latin America. In Mexico, nearly eight in 10 respondents said it was "very important"; in Argentina, the ratio was seven in 10; and in Peru, it was 65 percent.

Among developed countries, Britain topped the list, with 65 percent calling press freedom "very important". In the U.S., on the other hand, only 56 percent chose "very important", the same percentage as in Turkey, and less than the 58 percent of Chinese respondents who opted for "very important".

The least enthusiasm for an unfettered press was found in Russia (23 percent said "very important"), Iran (29 percent), and India (34 percent). Overall, Indians were the least likely (52 percent) among all nationalities to say that a free press was either "very" or "somewhat important".

India was also the only country in which less than 70 percent of respondents said people in their country should "have the right to read publications from other countries, including those that might be considered enemies". Only 56 percent of Indians agreed with that statement, while one-third said access to such publications should be limited.

As to whether governments should be able to prevent the publication of information that it believes could be politically destabilising, opinions were roughly evenly split in Russia, Turkey, and Egypt. Majorities in Jordan (66 percent), the PT (59 percent), Indonesia (56 percent), and Egypt (52 percent) and a plurality (45 percent) in Iran said governments should have that power. A plurality in India (42 percent) said they should not, while majorities all other countries, ranging 53 percent in China to 83 percent in Peru, said governments should not be able to censor such news.

In 10 countries, majorities of respondents said they favoured more freedom for the media than currently exists. That view was particularly strong in Mexico (75 percent), Nigeria (70 percent), China (66 percent), South Korea (65 percent), Egypt (64 percent), and the PT (62 percent). At the opposite end of the spectrum, 30 percent of Turks and 32 percent of Indians said they believed there should be less freedom in their countries.

article originally published at http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=42199.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey