Press freedom - essential but tricky in Middle East

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Updated: February 12, 2011 - 4:57 PM
John Rash

John Rash

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Analysis of media coverage of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings has mostly centered on the Western press, as well as the role Al Jazeera played in provoking the protesters.

But little has been said about Egypt's and Tunisia's press systems, and how they can change along with the regime change in both countries.

Just in time, the U.S. State Department recently released a new guide, "Media Law Handbook," written by Jane Kirtley, the Silha Center professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

The State Department approached Kirtley, most likely because of her deep understanding of international press policies. After years of press repression, Kirtley said, some societies see press processes and press freedoms quite differently.

"If you just go in and talk about the First Amendment, you're going to lose them. Even countries that have a fairly robust press don't have the First Amendment absolutism we have ..."

But, Kirtley warns, democracy and a free press are symbiotic systems.

"In these emerging societies, there's a great hunger for freedom of the press, but also some trepidation about it," she said.

"I've heard them say, 'We're not ready for a free press yet; we're too young a democracy, give us some time.' What I always tell them is, 'There is no time at all -- you will never become a true democracy if you don't have a free press.'"

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial board member. His column, Rash Report, appears on Saturdays.

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John Rash