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The Free Press and Democracy

It is a telling statement about the rigors of political evolution that the Sana’a Regional Democracy Conference prohibited journalists and some NGOs from attendance, when the foundation and substance of democracy is honest public debate among a well informed electorate.

As noted by Stamford University, since 1974 more than 60 countries in Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa have made transitions from authoritarian regimes to some form of democracy. Many around the Arab world are calling for some reform or democratization in the Middle East.

More than 600 delegates from 40 countries and international organizations met this week in Yemen for the Sana’a Intergovernmental Regional Conference on Democracy to discuss ways of promoting democracy and strengthening the rule of law. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh called democracy “the rescue ship” and the “choice of the modern age for all people.”

Arab League Secretary-General Amir Moussa pointed to many forces inhibiting the flourishing development of Arab States including economic and social problems and regional political crises.

Yemeni journalists were prohibited from attending the inaugural ceremony and were not permitted to take photographs. The National Organization for the Defense of Rights and Freedoms was excluded altogether. The organization reports itself to be “astonished.”

As Butros Butros-Gali noted nearly a decade ago, “Democratic institutions and processes channel competing interests into arenas of discourse and provide means of compromise that can be respected by all people.” The cornerstone of democracy is knowledgeable citizens. Freedom of the press is among the fundamental prerequisites for a functional democracy.

While many governments in the Middle East are striving for economic and political growth, the development agenda is largely silent about censorship, journalistic immunity and free speech. Many, if not most, states in the Middle East have laws on the books protecting journalists from the state and protecting the state from journalists. Numerous countries in the region have enacted laws explicitly prohibiting journalists from the publication of facts that report social issues or social discord, or that criticize leadership or government performance.

And these are the most important topics for journalists in a democracy. Censorship emasculates the citizenry and prohibits it from serving its role in a democracy: informed discussion, debate, and decision making. Beyond explicit censorship, an entrenched political culture that values stability and protection of current structures is a heavy burden on free speech and thus democratic evolution in the region.

Yemen is an example of a country heroically and steadfastly working toward a fuller democracy while struggling with countervailing influences. The proposed Yemeni Journalist Syndicate Draft Law would take Yemeni democracy several steps back and no steps forward. This proposed law would, according to a consortium of the Yemeni media, inhibit free speech and violate sections of Yemen’s constitution. The law proposes charging a 3% fee on all advertising revenue, not profit, and effectively bankrupting the independent press that is not financed by the government or political parties.

The bill also requires that journalists join the syndicate, effectively contravening the voluntary nature of trade unions. Lawyers, journalists and trade unionists have criticized the law which they say will convert the syndicate into a punitive apparatus. The legislation would have a chilling effect on independent reporting and free speech nationally. Only a shadow of the democratic potential of the Yemeni people would exist. The Committee to Protect Journalists has asked President Salah to withdraw the bill which it states “limits the ability of Yemen’s citizens to freely disseminate and receive information.” The Yemeni Journalists Syndicate itself has also requested the government withdraw and cancel the bill. As Yemeni journalists listen in the halls to catch a phrase about democracy, one must wonder where they will be quoted next: on the pages of AI or on the pages of the AP?

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