Universal press freedom still is a fragile liberty

Map of freedom in the Americas. Graphic: Freedom House (Click for larger image)

Today is World Press Freedom Day, and for the first time, the liberty of publishing belongs to everyone.

In the past, newspapers and television stations were criticized for the self-serving promotion of press freedom. In fact, the media plowed the road for everyone to establish strong protections for those who would give opinions.

The monopoly of the printed press and television has been broken. No longer do those who wish to express their opinions have to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars for equipment. A couple of hundred dollars in a computer and an Internet connection is all that is needed.

Can’t do a Web page? There is Facebook and Twitter. That’s free freedom of the press.

Yet there still are many countries that are allergic to press freedom. Cuba is one where those who comment on the social condition might end up in prison. Freedom House, a press watchdog, estimates that 87 countries or about 45 percent of the world’s 194 nations are free.

“Nearly 2.5 billion people live in societies where fundamental political rights and civil liberties are not respected. China accounts for more than half of this number,” said Freedom House in a press release Monday. See story HERE!

Costa Rica, which is listed as totally free, still has its problems. There has been a proliferation of English-language news outlets on the Internet here. A.M. Costa Rica still is the best read, but there are no guarantees.

The big danger to publishers here are criminal defamation charges. Such cases can be brought without any real evidence and can tie up a company in litigation for years. Fighting such a case is expensive, and the Costa Rican courts have no provisions for throwing out a case without substance early in the proceedings. Such a case usually goes to trial, and there is no guarantee that the truth will prevail.

So every time a reporter or editor in Costa Rica types a word for publication, either in print or on the Internet, there is the risk of a criminal allegation.

Costa Rica needs to eliminate the criminal aspects of defamation and provide a legal way for a judge to throw out a case at an early stage if there does not appear to be substance to the allegations. In the United States, this is called a summary judgment.

Press freedom in Costa Rica is better than in adjacent countries and in other Latin lands. No one questioned editors here when A.M. Costa Rica first appeared on the Internet. Readers comment critically on news stories. Letters to the editor frequently are argumentative and sometimes nasty. This newspaper has a policy of publishing nearly all the letters readers send in.

The main reason letters are left out is because the writer has submitted opinions too frequently.

For that there are discussion lists. There are a handful about Costa Rica. The submissions range from the weighty to the trite. There also are travel Web pages where tourists can post critical reports on their accommodations and restaurants. Frequently these reports carry a lot of weight with future visitors.

The freedom the public has today to voice their opinions frightens some politicians. This may be the golden age of personal expression. Even in wide open societies there is movement to restrict what writers can say online.

But for today, the freedom is there for the public to lose. Each citizen must resist even well-reasoned efforts to curb free expression. That’s because for the first time, the free press truly belongs to the public and not media corporations.

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