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The case for spreading press freedom around the world

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, April 18, 2010

As the Obama administration looks for big ideas to shape its foreign policy, officials should consult a new book that argues, in effect, that America's "Manifest Destiny" in the 21st century is to extend to the world the standards of our own First Amendment.

This press-freedom manifesto carries the zesty title "Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open" and was written by Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University. I teased him at a symposium last week that if journalists were to write their own description of the media landscape, it would carry a gloomier moniker such as "Nervous, Broke and Hunkered-Down." Bollinger's point is that in a globalized economy, we need rules that ensure open access to information. What we're seeing instead, from China to Iran, is a drive by authoritarian governments to manipulate those information flows. This squeeze affects private companies such as Google and news organizations such as The Post. But, as Bollinger says, there's a compelling public interest for the U.S. government in keeping the information flows as unhindered as possible.

"The projection outward of the principle of freedom of the press onto the world stage should become a primary goal as we build the rudiments of a global society," writes Bollinger. He argues that the building blocks for such a global order already exist, in international conventions on human rights, free-trade agreements and other pacts. But the United States has resisted some of these forums that could provide greater openness, fearing that other governments could use them against us.

(Since this is a piece advocating openness, I should disclose that Bollinger is a director of The Washington Post Co. and that he sent me a draft of the book some months ago for comment.)

The free flow of information has become a decisive strategic variable. That's why dictators are terrified of "color revolutions" broadcast live on CNN. Iran's leaders know that if the world is connected via the Internet, they can't ruthlessly suppress protesters in the streets. Chinese leaders fear that if people can search the Internet freely through Google, the Communist Party will lose an essential tool of control.

Yet the paradox is that efforts to control information in the Internet age are inherently self-defeating. They require ever more elaborate mechanisms of censorship, which have the effect of isolating a country from the global economy. That may work for North Korea, where people have been cut off so long they don't know what the world looks like. But it won't fly with Iranians or Chinese who like being connected and want more interaction, not less.

The enemies of press freedom keep at it, even though they know that they are playing a losing hand. In 2001, I asked Lee Kuan Yew, the otherwise admirable former leader of Singapore, why he used libel law and other tools to suppress critics. He conceded that censorship was counterproductive in the Internet age. "You either use the Internet or you are backward," he said. Yet Singapore's lawyers keep issuing writs against stories the leadership doesn't like.

I'm wary of Bollinger's arguments for public support of U.S. news organizations in this time of financial trouble. I fear that would mean more "embedding" of government and the press at a time when we need less. American journalists need to protect their image of independence, at home and abroad; they need to reassure people that they have checked their personal baggage -- national, ideological, cultural and religious -- when they become journalists. Public subsidies make that harder.

I'm nervous, too, about international regulation of information or newsgathering, even in the name of openness. That's why I'd like to see journalists fight much of this battle on our own -- working with colleagues in China and Iran, and a hundred countries in between -- to provide greater access and openness.

But as Bollinger argues, the U.S. government has a responsibility today to protect open flows of electronic information, much as the U.S. Navy ensures the freedom of navigation on the high seas. Google shouldn't have to fight its digital battles alone or worry that if it stands up against censorship, Microsoft will grab the business.

Bollinger's call for a global First Amendment has been criticized as too chauvinistic. But the world's embrace of the Internet tells me that we're on the right side of history on this one. The Internet was born free, and we should insist, to paraphrase the Founders, that no government make any law abridging this freedom.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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