Sunday, May 22, 2022

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When the state controls the media


Last week was Sunshine Week in the United States.

It was not in Russia.

The American Society of News Editors established Sunshine Week in 2005 to emphasize the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy. It celebrates the First Amendment’s requirement that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and adds the corollary that in a free society, those freedoms imply that government meetings and records are open to the public.

Hence the decades of U.S. case law that require sunshine on government activities. Hence the crucial role of news media to keep the sun from setting on those activities. And hence the determination of government in authoritarian countries to eclipse that sunshine, to prevent their citizens from knowing what the authorities are up to.

In those countries the press generally serves as an arm of the state or is directly under its control. Russia presents a classic example. 

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In Western nations people know what’s happening, because reporters who work for a free press are there to tell the truth. 

In Russia, not so much. President Putin held a huge rally last week in Moscow to stir up support among the Russian people for his brutal invasive war against Ukraine. Through Putin’s state media outlets, here’s what Russian citizens are told:

—- Russia’s “special military operation” (reporters are not allowed to call it a “war”) aims at defeating Ukraine’s neo-Nazi leadership. This despite the fact that Ukrainian President Zelenskyy is Jewish, and several of his relatives lost their lives in the World War Two Holocaust.

—- Russia’s military fires only on Ukrainian military installations, not on Ukrainian residents. Damage to Ukrainian buildings—such as theaters and schools where civilians seek shelter—is allegedly caused by the Ukrainian military.

—- The Russian army is acting heroically, with few casualties among its ranks. 

—- Ukraine is committing genocide.

Keeping the sun shining on Ukraine poses real danger for wartime reporters there on the ground. Several U.S. news media employees have been killed and others wounded in combat situations, and more casualties among their Western media colleagues are always possible. That’s part of the price of a free press that tries to keep track of what governments are doing. 

Reporters working to tell the truth in closed societies around the world likewise put their lives and freedoms in perpetual danger. A free press threatens the existence of authoritarian rulers.

To prevent Western media coverage of the war from reaching the Russian people, Putin’s government blocks the Western press and as much social media as it can. A courageous Russian TV personality who interrupted a Russian news broadcast with the message that Russian coverage of the war is a lie was detained for 15 hours and is now persona non grata in the Russian media world.

Despite Putin’s determined efforts to hide the truth of the war in Ukraine from the Russian people, it leaks out. Thousands of Russian protesters have been detained, but the protests continue. 

Remember Baghdad Bob? That was America’s nickname for Saddam Hussein’s official Iraqi communications director during the Iraq War. He was the guy who kept celebrating the “huge success” of the Iraqi military as American troops blasted into the heart of Baghdad after a lightning thrust through Iraq’s desert.   

Authoritarian rulers know well the truth of the adage that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” 

On a personal note, it’s been my privilege for the past five years to serve on the Iowa Public Information Board (IPIB), a state agency that answers questions from the public, local governments, and media representatives about Iowa’s open meetings and public records laws. My term on the board ends April 30.

The board’s staff and members consider complaints about possible violations of those laws, most of them answered through a simple phone call. When there’s a dispute between the complainant and the responding public body, the staff often achieves an informal resolution of the situation.

The nine-member IPIB board, like a multi-member court, is sometimes divided in its judgment about a particular complaint, but every dispute that comes to the board receives careful consideration. 

I have sometimes been in the minority in 8 to 1 decisions, generally siding with the complainant against the public agency in those instances. As a media representative on the board, I’ve tried to uphold the stricture in Iowa’s openness laws that in cases of ambiguity, the law should be decided in favor of openness. I hope whoever succeeds me on the board holds that provision in high regard.

When the state controls the media, sunshine is in jeopardy. In an open society like ours, the public needs to know what its government does. The more sunshine the better.

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