SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates – The Associated Press' executive editor called on governments around the world to support an independent press, warning Monday that efforts to silence the media through intimidation and violence are "in effect an attack on a nation's people."
Kathleen Carroll said the media can be a proxy for questions and concerns by citizens and the role of independent journalists is to ask questions on behalf of the people and bear witness.
"Governments may not always enjoy the work of an independent press, but an independent press is a vital part of the dialogue that governments around the world have with their citizens," she said in an address to representatives of state media, independent news organizations and government officials at the Sharjah International Government Communication Forum.
Governments throughout the Middle East have a spotty record on freedom of the press. In Egypt, journalists and employees of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera network are among 20 defendants being tried on charges of belonging to and aiding a terrorist organization and threatening national security for their coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood. The journalists have pleaded not guilty, and the network insists its reporters were just doing their job. Journalists also face challenges, including legal restrictions and intimidation in Iraq, Libya and Arab Gulf nations. Syria, where a civil war is raging, is the deadliest country for journalists in the world, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
She said governments that are transparent with the media, and by extension their people, can build "an important bond of trust."
"Efforts to silence an independent press through indifference, inaction, intimidation and sometimes physical attack are in effect an attack on a nation's people and their right to information about their communities and institutions," Carroll said.
Carroll, who also is vice-chair of the board of CPJ, also urged the U.S. government to follow through on promises of transparency with the media instead of falling back on the use of "national security" reasons to block information. Carroll said President Barack Obama made clear on his first day in office in 2009 that his emphasis would be on transparency, and he vowed that all questions about the workings of government should be expected to yield answers.
"Today President Obama's record on transparency might be considered mixed," she said at the forum, which brought together policymakers and media professionals to discuss how governments can improve their communications. "While it is easier to get some information from some parts of the U.S. government, in others, simple questions get stuck in the gears and are never answered," Carroll said, adding that other requests for information from his administration and governments around the world are denied for national security reasons.
"That's a vague and very mushy explanation that is often intended to stop further questions," she said at the forum being held in Sharjah, which sits along the Persian Gulf coast just north of Dubai.
In October, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that the U.S. government's aggressive prosecution of leaks and efforts to control information under the Obama administration were having a chilling effect on journalists and government whistle-blowers.
Last year, U.S. Justice Department officials acknowledged they seized records for 21 AP phone lines used by reporters and editors during an investigation into the leak of information on a foiled al-Qaida bomb plot.
Carroll said the blanket of secrecy is spread over day to day government activities like the budget in far too many nations.
"Governments that are open with their people, transparent about spending programs ... do inspire some confidence," she said.