This article is an abridged version of a forthcoming essay to be published by the Cornerstone Project, The Media Institute’s public awareness and education program celebrating the First Amendment. SPJ is a member of the Cornerstone Project Advisory Council. For more information about the Cornerstone Project, visit the Web site at www.mediainstitute.org
It was not a typical visit from a client.
He had been targeted by his president, Slobodan Milosevic, he told me. His newspaper in Belgrade, the Dnevni Telegraf, had been summarily subjected to ruinous fines for expressing opinion, all on a pretext and without any hope of legal challenge. It was no longer safe for him to publish.
But he had found a publisher in Montenegro, just south of Serbia, and a sympathetic trucking firm that would hide bundles of his magazine, Evuropljanin, under heads of lettuce and shipments of grain. His magazine could come right into the markets in the center of Belgrade, he told me with a wry smile. He would give it away if he could not sell it.
But can this be safe, I remember asking. Shouldn’t you stop? He was incredulous. “I will never stop,” he said. Upon returning to Serbia, he was sentenced to five months in prison.
As he walked home from Orthodox Easter Mass, Slavko Curuvija was assassinated.
World Press Freedom Day, celebrated on May 3, is a fitting reminder of the tenacity and the courage of those who fight for global free expression on the world’s most difficult battlefields. Mr. Curuvija’s assassination was not an isolated incident. The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed that 19 journalists were assassinated or killed in the line of duty in 2002; another 13 died of suspicious causes, and at least four more simply disappeared. In 2001, 37 were lost.
This has been going on for as long as there have been conflicts between those in authority and those who would criticize authority. My own grandfather, a printer in Luxembourg, criticized the Nazi invasion until his presses were destroyed by the SS.
Sacrifices have been made in America since the Revolution for the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. These values are in danger today, as the Internet and our shrinking world have made the fight for free speech a global battle. It is no longer a battle in which our federal courts can be a dependable refuge; it is no longer a battle where Congress can be relied upon to pass laws. It is a battle being fought by two very different groups of media companies and journalists.
The first are the U.S. media outlets that find themselves threatened with criminal prosecutions in distant lands, subpoenaed before foreign courts and libel suits in nations where they have no presence outside of Internet availability. The second group consists of the fledgling media and reporters of countries where the worst laws exist – news outlets that may have fewer resources than the average campus radio station but whose expression may inform the entire population of a European capital.
What can American media do to help?
First goal: Create an international system to protect free expression. We cannot export the First Amendment, but we can get to know international laws and treaties and do our best to help our European, African and Asian colleagues shape those laws to protect free expression internationally.
Second goal: Apply public international law to the Internet. Courts in Italy, Germany, Zimbabwe, France and elsewhere typically find that a story was “published” in their country if it can be accessed there via the Internet. They apply their own country’s law to dispute over stories, and foreign publishers are required to defend themselves in that country. This approach does not comply with international law. It is our duty to urge the application of long-settled rules of international law to stop the foreign land grab over speech rights.
Third goal: Support the journalists who are fighting the toughest battles. By funding dedicated and tireless nongovernmental organizations such as the International Research Exchanges Board’s Promedia program, Internews, and the International Center for Journalists, the U.S. government is creating an infrastructure that has permitted independent media to exist where they otherwise would not have had a fighting chance. These programs should be continued, strengthened and supported.
American journalists can help by lending their time to NGO programs that need experts and advice. And they can show solidarity with overseas journalists and media lawyers as they fight the most difficult battles. Focusing our attention and energy on press injustices can help these struggling journalists, and we can help create a rule of law that will be more favorable for U.S. companies that can no longer assume they will be subject only to American law.
We can help. We must.
Kurt Wimmer is managing partner of the London office of Covington & Burling, where he concentrates on media law, intellectual property and data protection. He has represented numerous media companies and journalists on newsgathering matters, libel and privacy defense, public policy and free expression issues.