Press freedom: A chill in the air

As the world reflects on the best and worst places to practice journalism on Press Freedom Day, May 3, independent writers’ groups and civil liberties advocates warn that Washington’s “war on terror” is putting a growing chill on the basic democratic right of free expression.

“Thanks in large part to the Patriot Act, the US is once again excluding foreign writers from the country simply because of their political beliefs,” said Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Romero was speaking at an event last week in New York titled “An Evening Without...”, organised with PEN’s American Centre, the oldest group in the world dedicated to defending free expression and fighting censorship. Intended to highlight the problem of ideological exclusion, it featured famous authors and actors who have been banned from the US because of their political opinions. These included writers who were excluded during the Cold War, such as Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Italian playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, English writer Graham Greene, Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, and Mexican author Carlos Fuentes.

One recent example is Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss native and visiting fellow at St Antony’s College at Oxford University in England. He is considered a leading scholar of the Muslim world, who has published 20 books, more than 700 articles and 170 audiotapes on Muslim issues. Some of his most recent lectures include a discussion on “Why Islam Needs a Feminist Movement” and “Muslim Democrats in the West and Democratisation in the Muslim World: Prospects for Engagement”. Named one of the most influential people of the 21st century by Time magazine, Ramadan is strongly opposed to all forms of terrorism.

In the beginning of 2004, the professor was offered a tenured position as the Henry R Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in the US state of Indiana. Ramadan was granted a special non-immigrant visa in May 2004. However, in July, only nine days before he and his family were to move to Indiana, he was informed by the US embassy in Switzerland that his visa had been revoked. The reason cited was the ideological exclusion provision as the basis for the revocation.

The Patriot Act was hurriedly enacted by Congress, at the behest of the Bush administration, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. It gave federal law enforcement agencies sweeping new surveillance and detention powers.

Undeniably, the press in the US enjoys more freedoms than many other countries. A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists listed 10 most censored countries in the world. North Korea topped the list, followed by Myanmar, Turkmenistan, Equatorial Guinea, Libya, Eritrea, Cuba, Uzbekistan, Syria and Belarus. But the US has been criticised for attempts to compel reporters to reveal their confidential sou-rces in the name of national security. In its 2005 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders noted, “the US fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources.” — IPS