Information first, freedom & protection next

January 27, 2010

While most of the Wikileaks debate is focused on the protection of journalists and freedom of expression, a similar debate is underway here – but in a rather different environment.
An environment, where an important prerequisite of freedom of press and protection of journalists is missing – the right to information or freedom of information.
In Iraq, the government, the public and the journalists view the media in a very traditional way. The solutions that they seek to create the right environment for good journalism are not much better.
The various drafts of the journalist protection and other media-related legislation that are in the Baghdad parliament, all share one common thing; their view is that the journalist is part of the conflict and hence needs protection. On the other hand, they see the journalist as part of the state and hence needs privileges.
The press law of the Kurdish Region, for example, was written with only newspapers in the mind of the legislators; more specifically, the anti-government ones!
This is happening at a time when we claim to be in a democracy that has a strong fourth estate – a free, professional and responsible media.
Good journalism can only flourish in the right legal, political and cultural environment. If the current thinking of the nature and role of media prevails in parliament we will end up with a legal framework that divides journalists to pro and anti-government ones; those who attack the establishment and those who defend it.
The main reason for this is that all thinking about the future of media is revolving around freedom and protection. Very little, so far, has been said about information and transparency.
It is true that freedom and protection are two important pillars for good journalism but one must ask: the freedom to do or say what? Protection from what?
A journalist without information is like a doctor who has a patient in front of him and is not allowed to touch him, take any data or test any part of the patient’s body; and at the same time the doctor is trying to treat the patient.
Without information, journalists do one of two things: either attack or insult the subject and subsequently commit libel. The other thing the journalist can do is speculate and run the risk of being wrong and of course risk being taken to court for libel.
All of this is at the expense of the public’s awareness and knowledge of what is going in their life. It also undermines our media and our nascent democracy.
If you hold a map of the world and mark the countries that are most democratic, least corrupt and most transparent, you would find that there is one thing that links these countries together. They all have a freedom of Information legislation. About 85 countries have them – Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 is the oldest.
The legislation is a set of rules that guarantee access to data held by the state. They establish a “right-to-know” legal process by which requests may be made for government-held information,www.ekurd.netto be received freely or at minimal cost, barring standard exceptions.
Although we have constitutional guarantees for the right of access to information; but these rights are unused if specific support legislation does not exist. And the legislation would mean nothing if it is not used by all.
Our leaders, legislators, politicians, government officials, media and civil society need not to worry about regulating the existing media. They need to think about a system whereby information is made available to all.
A system as such, would be the best defence for everyone who means well.
Leaders and officials would be forced to be transparent and open to the public and media.
The media would be forced to professionalize and be responsible with the information they have for the public.
The public would be more aware, more educated and more able to make the right decision.
Only then, would the words protection of journalists and freedom of expression bare meaning in our emerging democracy.

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