Right #1: A Free Press

Tail of a black rattlesnake visible among the leavesI’ve wandered around this planet quite a bit, visited countries I’d like to visit again, and experienced cultures that had some good features and some not so much. In my line, one of the most valuable cultural traits is freedom of the press. It has been under open fire lately, partly because one of the better known candidates claims to dislike most of the press – especially outlets that do not agree with him.

The king of Thailand recently died. Citizens were prohibited, under strict penalties up to and including death, from voicing disapproval of the monarch.

A news crew went to China this summer to research the effect of graphite mining on the health of people and crops in the vicinity of the mines. People would often begin talking to the producers, then clam up as government watchers came near.

In North Dakota last week, award-winning journalist Amy Goodman and documentary filmmaker Deia Schlosberg were arrested while attempting to record interactions between oil pipeline protestors and police. Dogs and chemicals reportedly have been used against the protestors, and police have reportedly shot down drones operated by the journalists. (Look up “Dakota Access Pipeline” for more information.)

Oops. That last paragraph could not possibly have been written about North Dakota, USA.

But it was. Goodman was charged with three felonies while gathering video of dogs and chemicals being loosed on protestors by police. A judge later dismissed those charges but as I write this, Goodman’s film remains in custody of the prosecution, and Schlosberg, for similar activities, faces charges that could result in up to 45 years in jail.

The prosecutor was quoted in local media saying Goodman was “a protestor, basically” because, in his view, her reporting was biased against the pipeline developers.

I’ve been plying a pen, so to speak, more than 40 years. Occasionally, I have been asked to leave embarrassing names or facts out of a story, or simply not cover the issue at all. Businesses often circle their wagons and attempt to limit what the public is allowed to learn about, for instance, an accident in which a worker dies.

But we rely on a free press to let us know when important events take place. Apparently Mr. Prosecutor has not heard of the First Amendment. His activities harken back to a time when Pennsylvania coal companies hired thugs to beat and kill miners — and all the miners wanted was a living wage. The Americans in North Dakota want clean drinking water.

Companies like to talk about the “chilling effect” of legislative and court decisions that could, or actually do, go against them. What is even more chilling is their use of prosecution to stop the press from reporting on their activities.

In a letter to North Dakota state’s attorney, N.D. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and ranking member Patrick Leahy, the Society of Environmental Journalists wrote: ”But under the First Amendment, any purported bias in news coverage does not invalidate constitutional protections. And we note that North Dakota has a shield law, which we trust will guard against any fishing expedition by prosecutors.”

If we choose to not hear about climate warming, or exploding airbags, or the candidates for the upcoming elections, that is a right we enjoy. But the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution guarantees us access to that information.

This certainly appears to be an attempt by a powerful industry to shut down public awareness and discussion of important issues. That should concern us all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *