Watching the Watchdogs

THERE were several ways to observe World Press Freedom Day last Tuesday. One was to memorialize the 24 journalists killed on the job so far this year; 74 died last year. Last week two American reporters died in Bosnia, and on April 26 a publisher was gunned down in Moscow for printing names of the Russian mafia.

Today, when many countries profess conversion to democracy, the news media are the center of government attention. The code phrase for new statist controls is ``assuring press responsibility.''

Even Britain has a stringent official secrets act, and ``D-notices,'' which order the press to bar all mention of certain subjects or persons. Press responsibility has become a fighting phrase for parliamentary critics of British journalism - so, too, in virtually all governments of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, most of their legislatures spent the past 18 months drafting press laws beginning with splendid promises: The press is free and censorship is banned. There then follows in one country after another a series of code words to assure ``press responsibility.''

In Poland, broadcasters must reflect ``Christian values'' in programming. The recent firing of more than 100 broadcasters in Hungary's state-run system threatens press freedom. A new media law in the Kyrgyz Republic proscribes advocating war, violence or intolerance toward ethnic or religious groups, the overthrow of the constitutional order, and desecration of national symbols. Most broad is the threat to penalize propagation of ``false information.'' Meanwhile, Slovakia's prime minister warned he could tax out of existence newspapers that refuse to ``tell the truth.''

Many communist officeholders still work in the news media of Eastern Europe. The post office monopoly, manned by holdovers, distributes 90 percent of the newspapers and magazines. Interruption of press deliveries and harassment of press staffs is common. Governments own most printing presses on which independent papers are published. And, as in Russia, governments allocate newsprint.

The Council of Europe, strangely, is considering statist steps to monitor press responsibility, and to penalize violators. Ironically, in the 1970s and '80s the same West Europeans fought efforts in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to define and police press responsibility. UNESCO has since made a 180-degree turn and is now the worldwide sponsor of Press Freedom Day. Since 1990, UNESCO has organized a new effort each year to create independent, diverse news media in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, and the central Asian republics. Last week in Chile, the organization ran a similar conference for Latin American journalists.

American polls reveal public dissatisfaction with press coverage of politicians. Sharing this criticism is Frederik de Klerk. This February in Cape Town, he told visiting foreign journalists he supports press freedom but added this caveat regarding the press as ``watchdog'':

``Large dogs sometimes bay at the moon and disturb the neighborhood,'' he said. ``They bound into the house with muddy paws and upset delicate and valuable crockery. They can be obsessed by the scent of sex. From time to time they invade the privacy of the neighbor's garden and, alas, they have been known to bite innocent passersby.''

The journalists laughed good-humoredly, though Americans could recall how such criticism holds influence. When the Pentagon invaded Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf, the news media were tightly restricted, but the public approved. When Attorney General Janet Reno recently warned television networks that violence in programming might result in government intervention, the feeble public response favored restriction rather than editorial freedom. But back in 1947, the landmark Hutchins Commission linked press responsibility to press freedom, if government intervention in the news media is to be avoided - despite the First Amendment's guarantee that Congress shall create ``no law'' on ``the press.''

In three-quarters of the countries, restrictions on the news media are increasing in the name of ensuring press responsibility. Treatment of news media is the test of whether political democracy and market economics are proceeding: Is press responsibility imposed through laws and administrative regulations, political influence, economic pressure, and overt physical attacks?

The current Freedom House survey reveals that news media are not free in 54 countries, partly free in 64 nations, and free in the remaining 69 countries. Yet even the freest governments seek to manage the news. There is relentless tension in every country between those who want to withhold, manipulate, or promote official information, and journalists who seek to view and describe events by professional standards.

A four-year decline in press freedom worldwide continues during the first quarter of 1994, according to the survey. Press freedom peaked during the revolutionary year of 1989. Soon after, 39 percent of the countries had free news media. That reflected mainly the demise of communism in Eastern/Central Europe, reduction of press controls in the USSR, and similar winds of change in Africa.

In 1992, free-press nations slipped to 38 percent; and in 1993 to 37 percent. In the first quarter this year, the press is free in 36.6 percent of the countries. The reduction is small but significantly regular. The survey of 186 countries is the most detailed in 15 years.

Democracy is difficult; civil responsibility, even more so; and still harder, operating responsible news media in a highly competitive free society. Yet a free press may remain so only if it is responsible - to its own highest standards. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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