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An attack on the free media is an attack on us all

The Hill, December 10, 2015

By Michael P. Meehan

In the U.S., we often take our freedoms for granted.  Our open access to news and information is guaranteed by our Constitution and is one of the most important pillars of our democracy. 

However, not everyone is able to enjoy the same freedoms we have at home.  For example, in Russia, President Vladimir Putin has gone to great lengths to consolidate the country’s media, “moving from supporting the government with biased news to actively participating in an ‘information war’ with its perceived adversaries,” according to a Freedom House report.  And in China, reporters have faced long-term imprisonment for publishing “political liberal commentary,” according to the same investigation.      

While many might expect this type of media suppression from countries governed by heavy-handed regimes, what’s unexpected—and rather disturbing—is what’s happening in pro-western nations.  Macedonia, for example, is a former Soviet bloc country headed by pro-NATO and pro-Western Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.  Macedonia is also a candidate for accession to the European Union.  However, the country’s domestic opposition party, SDSM, is led by Zoran Zaev, the successor to the former ruling communist party during the Cold War.  Earlier this week, Zaev declared that four of the seven largest TV stations and daily newspapers—all free media not owned by the SDSM—are his “greatest political enemies.”  After facing a wall of criticism, Zaev’s party doubled-down, issuing a statement that called the current Macedonian free media environment “catastrophic.”     

Zaev’s comments harken back to dark time in recent Macedonian history.  Earlier this summer, journalists from Sitel TV and the chief editor of the “Vecer” newspaper were verbally and physically assaulted by members of the SDSM party while covering a protest at the Macedonian assembly.  The offices of “Radio Free Macedonia” were also destroyed during the same protest.         

As Macedonia deals with the ongoing refugee crisis, the need for free and independent journalism is more important now than ever.  The harrowing stories of refugees and families fleeing extreme violence have already played a significant role in shaping both public perceptions and the international community’s response.  For example, the traumatic photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi captured hearts and minds across the world, spurring many countries and ordinary citizens to take action.       

For the first half of this decade, I served as a board member of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and as chair of the Strategy and Budget Committee of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, overseeing all U.S. international non-military media, including the Voice of America.  I saw first hand the amazing role that a free media plays in emerging democracies and sadly how some governments, threatened, intimidate and jail journalists on a daily basis.   A free media is the foundation for a free society.

Every day, journalists from around the world go to great lengths and too many times at great risks, to deliver our daily news.  Whether in a warzone or at a news desk, these courageous reporters face threats on a regular basis yet remain unwavering in their commitment to their jobs and the broader public.  We must preserve their rights to report independently, so that we can continue to foster an environment of responsible discussion and open debate.      

By suppressing free, independent journalism, we not only restrict the rights of ordinary citizens to access important information, but we undermine our own democratic values.  By attacking the media, it is an attack on reporters and an attack on us all.    

Meehan is the former chair of the Strategy and Budget and Global Internet Freedom Committees for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).  He currently serves as the president and CEO of Squared Communications.

Read full article: The Hill, December 10, 2015