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"A free press for a new century"

January 24, 2014 at 2:21 pm

By Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban

The above title is actually a subtitle of a book by Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University with the full title of Uninhibited, Robust and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century (Oxford University Press). It was a good coincidence for me to read this book on my way to a number of South American countries about which I know little apart from what I have come across in media reports. Lee Bollinger’s book is a rare opportunity to study the thinking and analysis of an American scholar who is knowledgeable about the problem of a free press/media in the US and around the world.

It is obvious that Bollinger has conducted research for many years and dealt with delicate issues of legal and historical developments in the case of the US media, for which he deserves praise. He asks daring questions and raises complex issues relating to national security and freedom of the press, the relationship between the military and the media in times of war, as well as the relationship of the local media and national media and which must take precedence and why. He also discusses press freedom and government and corporate control of what we see, hear and read. His book is one of the most enjoyable I have read in recent years.

I admit that I did not introduce this article as a critical analysis of Bollinger’s book, but I wanted to start by highlighting points which are actually worthy enough to be the subject of another book entirely. When he discusses the globalisation of today’s media we are asked to consider the implications and the developments being made in this regard.

The problem with this subject is that Bollinger regards the US as a model for freedom of the press, despite the weaknesses that he records in some details. He is optimistic about the application of this model across the world, having proved itself in terms of legality and feasibility in America.

Although he mentions the problem of ownership of major media companies and the domination of the national over local media, he does not discuss in any profound way the disastrous effects of this shift on the collection and documenting of information. While he considers press freedom to mean freedom from government control, what about corporate control or control by lobby and other interest groups?

Bollinger looks at the killing of journalists in different parts of the world as a serious phenomenon, but does not mention the killing of journalists in Iraq and Palestine, and does not mention the bombing by the US Army of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, which was known as the media centre during and after the invasion of Iraq.

He also deems the dominance of US media around the world to be central to teaching the world about the importance of a free press, but doesn’t discuss, for example, the real reasons for the failure of Al-Hurrah TV in the Arab world as a model for this. Al-Hurrah is a US government-sponsored TV channel which, interestingly, is prohibited from broadcasting in the US itself because of the regulations concerning the broadcasting of propaganda. Western television networks that focus on the Middle East are regarded by Bollinger as a means of spreading the free media culture in our region, whereas we look on them as tools for political and economic dominance imposed by the West. We do not see this media as a means to break the restrictions on our own media outlets; rather, we consider it as a marketing process of colonial policy which disregards our civilization, culture and points of view on many issues. What sort of impact can Al-Hurrah TV have in the Arab world when thousands of Arab intellectuals and writers will not even appear on its programmes? The channel arrived as if on a parachute to promote the Iraq war, justify the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib Prison, ignore the suffering and pain of the Arabs as a result of this type of broadcasting and praise a democracy in Iraq that has cost the Iraqi people their lives, stability, security and the future of their children. Bollinger believes that the media coming from the West is operating in one world, and is an aid for the liberalisation of the media in our countries, but the fact of the matter is that the potential audience in the region see it as a tool for the advancement of wars waged against them and providing justification for the killing of their people and looting their material and mineral wealth.

Which section of the Western media discusses the million martyrs killed in Iraq, the 70% of Iraqi children who cannot go to school as a result of the security situation and the million widows relegated to the status of worthlessness and Middle Ages-like hardship? Where in the “free” Western press do we hear of the Palestinians’ right to their land, homes and resources? Or of Israeli crimes committed daily in the occupied West Bank and Gaza? We in the Arab world do not feel that we are equal partners in humanity with those who use their media outlets to tighten the military and political grip they have on our people.

Cuba was one of the countries I visited while I was reading Bollinger’s book and, of course, all that I had ever learnt about Cuba was channelled through his “free press”. I did not know what to expect to see in Havana; perhaps a town full of beggars, thieves and hungry people as a result of the US-imposed blockade which has lasted more than 50 years.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found Havana to be one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen and that the “privilege” of being under siege has prevented international investors grabbing the beautiful buildings and turning them into monolithic towers the likes of which can be found in almost every city around the world. The same “investors” have destroyed Iraq or are behind the ugly, illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine or have savaged major Arab cities in the name of “modernity and progress”, a euphemism for the destruction of heritage and identity.

Old Havana is one of the largest pre-modern cities in the world, whose trees alone can tell us much about its existence for hundreds of years. You walk around with a sense of security and affection, where mixed races and religions carry no sense of racism or prejudice, and you do not see beggars and homeless people on the streets. The financial situation of the population may not allow for the possession of many material items, but it is clear that basic needs are provided for all. Can such a claim be made by all of the very rich and industrially developed countries? Are we happy to create that urge to possess more than we actually need or can use, or eat more than we can digest? Is the positive result of modernity to be measured by consumption or the desire to spend, or has its influence distorted our perceptions to such an extent that we work day and night to own things we do not even have the time to enjoy?

If human rights are the focal point that differentiates between the United States and Cuba, then we have to ask if Cuba has a “Guantanamo Bay” on US territory occupied by Cuba. Is it not appropriate for the US to begin its dialogue on human rights with Cuba by closing down the Guantanamo prison, implement US pledges to evacuate the island and end the blockade? The US pays Cuba just $4500 a year to rent the land occupied by its infamous prison. Does the “free press” inform us about such facts when addressing Cuban affairs? If, indeed, it actually addresses Cuban affairs beyond what the US government spin doctors want us to know. If we have a truly free media, why do we have to travel to Cuba in order to uncover the truth about the situation there?

A genuinely “free press for a new century” needs to have a different approach; we must end the imbalance forced by corporate and lobby interests who regard themselves as experts on what the rest of us should know and do. If the media start to look at the people of the world as partners in the production of information, and not just consumers or recipients of propaganda, Lee Bollinger and those like him can perhaps really begin to call it a “free press”. Until then, freedom is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.