Obama's Empty Gestures

When will the administration honor Daniel Pearl's memory with real action on global free press?

There was an emotional ceremony at the White House on Monday when President Obama welcomed slain journalist Daniel Pearl's surviving family members to witness the signing of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act.

Pearl, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was brutally murdered in Pakistan as he was following up some leads on al-Qaeda financing in early 2002. Four Pakistanis were convicted in Pearl's murder in July of that year. The mastermind of the kidnapping and murder, however, may have been Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who confessed to the murder under interrogation by the CIA.

According to the New York Times, the Freedom of the Press Act "requires the State Department to expand its scrutiny of news media restrictions and intimidation as part of its annual review of human rights in each country. Among other considerations, the department will be required to determine whether foreign governments participate in or condone violations of press freedom."

This is certainly good news. According to Freedom House's annual surveyof press freedom in 196 countries, the indicators fell for the 8th straight year:

  • Significant declines outnumbered gains by a 2-to-1 margin. Notable regional declines were registered in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, as well as the Middle East.
  • Declines in important emerging democracies demonstrate the fragility of press freedom in such environments. Namibia and South Africa, two of the new democracies, dropped from Free to Partly Free. Worrying declines were also registered in Mexico, the Philippines, and Senegal.
  • The only area to show overall improvement was the Asia-Pacific region, spurred by notable gains in South Asia that included status changes in Bangladesh and Bhutan from Not Free to Partly Free and a numerical score jump for the Maldives.
  • Governments in China, Russia, Venezuela, and other countries have been systematically encroaching on the comparatively free environment of the internet and new media. Sophisticated techniques are being used to censor and block access to particular types of information, to flood the internet with antidemocratic, nationalistic views, and to provide broad surveillance of citizen activity.
  • Journalists are increasingly the victims of assault and murder, a trend fueled by impunity for past crimes.

We give Egypt billions of dollars in aid every year and yet, President Mubarak and his security services have gotten into the very bad habit of arresting journalists and even bloggers who write on subjects that the state deems "dangerous." It's certainly dangerous to the journalists but beyond that, there doesn't seem to be much rhyme nor reason to the practice except to clamp down on dissent.

Of course, you take your life in your hands if you write anything against the regime in Iran. Entire newspapers have been shut down by the mullahs since the disputed election last year and there is no sign that they are letting up in their campaign to silence critics.

Perhaps President Obama will want to do something about his friend Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, who has shut down opposition TV stationsand engaged in media intimidation. Freedom House lists Venezuela as "Not Free," ranking it a dismal 163 our of 196 nations. Just don't let Sean Penn hear you call Hugo a "dictator," though. He favors having journalists arrested who call Chavez the "D" word.

Mexico, South Africa, India, and Italy are all listed as "Partly Free." Freedom House uses a broad range of criteria to determine it's rankingsbased on a point system. The legal, political, and economic environment for the press in each country is given a numerical score of 0-40 in each. The totals reveal whether a country is "Free," "Partly Free," or "Not Free." Only 69 countries are judged as having a "Free" press in their 2010 survey.

While a welcome addition to our criteria for giving aid and adjudging a level of support our State Department can offer a nation, one has to wonder how seriously the president and his appointees will actually take this new law. As Jennifer Rubin points out in a piece in Commentary's Contentions blog, this administration has fallen down in its support for press freedom in countries where the weight of our words is desperately needed:

Has Obama done anything about the suppression of media critics in Egypt (other than prepare a lucrative financial package for the Egyptian government)? Has Obama made this a priority with any thugocracy? No. And when signing a bill in the name of someone who elevated and personified the freedom of expression, Obama at least could have departed from his campaign to delete the name of our enemies from the public lexicon.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, it's business as usual for the enemies of the free press. Anti-blasphemy measures are being pushed by the usual suspects in the Muslim world in a clear effort to stifling criticism of Islam.

In addition, the UN Human Rights Council has drafted rules designed to "protect" Islam from "political cartoonists and bigots." This attitude seems widespread at the United Nations, who recently celebrated "World Press Freedom Day" on May 3rd. How devoted the UN is to press freedom is a matter open for debate. UNESCO, sponsor of World Press Freedom Day, defines "Fundamental Principles concerning the Contribution of the Mass Media" in what must be considered a novel manner:

2. Access by the public to information should be guaranteed by the diversity of the sources and means of information available to it, thus enabling each individual to check the accuracy of facts and to appraise events objectively. To this end, journalists must have freedom to report and the fullest possible access to information. Similarly, it is important that the mass media be responsive to concerns of peoples and individuals, thus promoting the participation of the public in the aggregation of information.

3. With a view to the strengthening of peace and international understanding, to promoting human rights and to countering racialism, apartheid and incitement to war, the mass media throughout the world, by reason of their role, contribute to promoting human rights, in particular by giving expression to oppressed peoples who struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, foreign occupation and all forms of racial discrimination and oppression and who are unable to make their voices heard within their own territories.

We Americans prefer the simple, "Congress shall make no law..." found in the First Amendment. It would appear that UNESCO has narrowed that definition considerably.

This is important because of the Obama administration's clear preference for bending to the will of the United Nations on a variety of issues, most recently when Iran was given a seat on the UN Commission on Women's Rights and President Obama remained silent. If we acquiesce on this, what other nonsense will the Obama administration put up with?

Despite its noble goals, it would seem to be a pipe dream to expect the State Department to do more than go through the motions when it comes to fulfilling the requirements of the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act. Given the large number of states who routinely violate that freedom, we should expect a business as usual attitude, especially from this president, whose outreach to thugs and tyrants around the world regardless their treatment of journalists – or their people - continues.