A Free Press for a New Century

This is the sub-title of a book by Lee Bollinger, President of Colombia University. The title is: Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open.[1] It was a happy coincidence that I read the book on my way to a number of countries in South America. Although I had previously visited, briefly, two of these countries, but I do not claim to know the region, except through the press. I have followed the way Western media have dealt with Arab issues for years; and I have often wondered about the problem of hiding information, kidnapping and killing journalists in different parts of our region. This book gave me a rare insight into the thoughts and analyses of an American thinker keenly interested in the problematic issue of the free press in the United States and the rest of the world.

It is clear that Bollinger has researched his subject for years, and examined its legal and historical details and the way perceptions developed regarding the press in the United States. It is a commendable effort which raised courageous, difficult and complicated questions related to national security; freedom of the press and the relationship between the military and the media in times of war; the relationship between local and national media and which should be given precedence and why; freedom of the press from the pressure of governments, proprietors and lobbies. This was one of the most interesting books I have read in recent years.

Although, I am not going to provide a critique of the book here, but I’ll make it my starting point to address an issue which requires a second book. It is the issue which Bollinger gave a chapter in his book: “borders notwithstanding”, which is an examination of the globalization of the press and developments in this regard. The problem–” which is my concern here –” is that Bollinger considers the United States a model of a free press, despite the weaknesses he sites. He expresses optimism in applying this model worldwide, so that the world learns and accepts the freedom of the press as accepted in the United States. Although he mentions the problem of the media being owned by giant corporations, and the dominance of national media and subordination of local and regional media, he does not dwell long on the disastrous consequences of such a transformation. His only concern is that the press should be free from government control; but what about the control of certain companies, ideologies or interest groups? Is that not the same?

He thinks that the worldwide spread of American media is very important for other countries to learn about the importance of a free press, but does not address the real causes behind the failure of “al-Hurrah” TV in the Arab world, for instance, as a model for such media. He also writes about killing journalists in different parts of the world as a threat to the media, but does not say anything about journalists killed in Iraq and Palestine who, evidence has shown, were deliberately killed. Neither does he say anything about the American shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, which was known to be a journalists’ haunt in times of war.

TV networks targeting the Middle East, seen by Bollinger as a harbinger of spreading the culture of free press in our region, are, from our perspective a complementary tool of political and economic hegemony imposed by industrialized countries on our developing nations. We do not see in this type of media a tool for removing constraints on our press, but rather a way of floating colonial policies and marginalizing our culture and civilization and our views on issues.

“Al-Hurrah” is a case in point. Thousands of writers and intellectuals refuse to appear on this media outlet, because it was parachuted on us in order to justify the war on Iraq, torture in Abu Ghreib prison while ignoring the pain and suffering of the Arabs as a result. At the same time, it dedicates an equal amount of time to praising a democracy in Iraq that cost its people their life, stability and security and the future of their children.

Cuba was one of the countries I visited for the first time on this tour, while still reading Bollinger’s book. Of course, everything I had read or seen about Cuba was through the “free press” which Bollinger hopes will cover the whole globalized world. I did not know what to expect to see in Havana except maybe a small village full of beggars, robbers and homeless people as a result of the blockade imposed on the island for over half a century, and as a result of the miserable image given by the media about life on this island. The surprise was that Havana was one of the most beautiful cities I have seen in my life. The blockade prevented real estate developers from coming to the island to buy its beautiful traditional buildings and building tower buildings in their place as happened in most old cities of the world which were either deliberately destroyed in wars, as happened in Iraq, as a result of a racists settler colonialism, like what is happening in Jerusalem under the full gaze of the “free world”, or like what happened in Some Arab cities in the name of development and modernity, which is in fact a deliberate destruction of heritage and identity.

Havana is one of biggest old cities in the world. Walking its streets, you feel a strong sense of safety and affection. Races and religions mix without any discrimination against any race, color or religion. You do not see a beggar or a homeless person. People might not have a lot of money to have so many material possessions, but it is clear that basic necessities are available to everyone. Can the same be said of some rich industrialized countries? Moreover, are we really happy with creating that competitive spirit to possess what we do not need, to eat what we cannot digest and to possess things which are many times more than our needs?

If human rights are at stake in this debate, was it Cuba which built the Guantanamo prison on Cuban land occupied by the United States? In order for its occupation of the island not to be called so, the United States pays Cuba $ 4,500 a year in rent. Does the “free press” tell us these facts about Cuba, or do we all need to go there in order to know what is happening?

Does not that mean that the “free press” for a new century needs a different approach whereby this press changes from a press dominated by corporations, lobbies, interest groups and ideologues who consider themselves experts, conquerors and liberators into a new press where people from all parts of the world become partners in producing it rather than remaining mere consumers.


[1]. Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century

by Lee C. Bollinger