Press Freedom Awards
What if the government could decide what you were allowed to talk about?
What if you knew that a powerful person had committed a crime but you werent allowed to tell anyone?
If you lived in Malaysia, you might be facing questions like this all the time. Especially if you were a journalist trying to report the news.
The government of Malaysia strictly limits the kinds of things people can say in public. You cant criticize the government, or complain about things you think are unfair.
Even when there arent specific laws against some topics, most people know it just isnt smart to say anything that might make the government mad. The Malaysian government also keeps a very watchful eye on the media. In this Southeast Asian country, any news that the government doesnt want the public to know will simply not be published in the papers or discussed on TV. If a television station or newspaper breaks the governments rules, their license will be revoked and they will be put out of business.
In the United States, we are lucky to be able to write or say almost anything we want. You can stand on a street corner criticizing the government all day long if you feel like it. People might think youre annoying, but no one has the right to stop or arrest you for expressing your opinion. (U.S. law does draw the line at libel, however. Thats writing untrue things about someone that could damage their reputation.)
Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment also protects the freedom of the press. But in countries that are at war, or are under the control of a dictator, journalists are frequently in danger.
Several international "watchdog groups" keep an eye on governments and work to protect journalists rights. They monitor countries like Malaysia to make sure important stories are told, and to ensure that the people telling those stories are not put in danger. One of these groups is the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Every year the Committee to Protect Journalists gives out awards to a few courageous journalists who have risked jail, and in some cases, their lives, to report the news.
One of this years winners, Modeste Mutinga, is a journalist from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The DRC, in Central Africa, has been locked in a civil war for the past two years. Mutinga publishes the countrys only independent daily newspaper, and because the paper criticizes the government, he has been assaulted, arrested, and had his passport taken away.
Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a popular journalist from Iran, is in prison right now because he published an article criticizing Irans practice of capital punishment. The Iranian government sentenced him to two and a half years in prison, saying that he had insulted Islamic principles.
Zeljko Kopanja is a newspaper editor from Bosnia-Herzegovina. One day in October 1999, he got into his car and turned on the engine, and there was an explosion. Kopanja was the victim of a car bomb, and he ended up losing both his legs. Kopanja thinks someone was getting back at him for writing about Serbian military leaders who killed hundreds of Muslim civilians in Bosnia during the war.
Gan has been in trouble with the government many times because of some controversial stories he has written. When he worked for a Malaysian newspaper called The Sun, he found out about an illegal camp that was holding immigrants hostage. When he investigated further, he discovered that about 60 people in the camp had died from malnutrition and typhoid fever.
He wrote a story about the camp, claiming that those people had died because the police had neglected them. The Sun was reluctant to publish the story because the editors were concerned the government would punish them. Sure enough, after the story was finally published, police questioned Gan for three days. Other people who helped with the story are still in trouble for it.
Gan uses the Internet to get the word out to Malaysian citizens who want to read uncensored news but have a hard time finding it. The site was created by a group of journalists who were fed up with having their stories censored. Looking for alternatives, they turned to the Internet the only medium that the Malaysian government has promised not to censor.
Malaysian officials see the Internet as a good way to attract foreign companies, and have agreed not to interfere with what is published there. Gan has used this loophole to his advantage, publishing controversial stories on the Internet without having to worry about getting fired or being put in jail. Still, Gan knows he has to be careful.
"I think the government can shut us down anytime," he said. "They can come into our office and take all our computers. We are prepared for that eventuality."
What do you think? Do you think freedom of the press is worth risking your life?
Copyright © MacNeil-Lehrer Productions All Rights Reserved