World Press Freedom Day

03 May 2002

Today, May 3, is the eleventh annual World Press Freedom Day.

We in the advertising and media business would do well to remember that our work is all too often printed on the reverse of news stories obtained at great personal risk and sacrifice.

As at December 31, 2001, one hundred and eighteen journalists remained in prison across the world one in the USA. Fifty-eight journalists and media staff were killed during the year.

In 1991 the General Assembly of the United Nations formally declared May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. Eleven years on there is scant cause for celebration or complacency.

To mark this anniversary, President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel agreed to be interviewed.

President Havel, You have stood up for freedom of expression and have paid the price of almost five years in prison. What is the secret of such courage to resist?

Based on personal experience, I would say that this courage does not come as the result of a single moment in a person's life in which he or she decides to become a brave man or women or to stay a coward for ever. It is rather a development in which a person first takes one step that he or she considers to be the right one to take, and then another step follows, and then there is a process — a step by step process — of course based partly on the decisions the person is making, but partly also on the circumstances. Naturally, a person's character plays a role but quite often the decisive influence comes from the outside circumstances. Many brave people have become courageous much to their surprise.

Not so long ago I presented here at Prague Castle high decorations to two Czech journalists, Mrs. Petra Prochazkova and Mr. Jaromir Stetina, who have been working in Chechnia and Afghanistan. When I think about them, I believe that probably again it was not a matter of them deciding at the beginning of their careers to become heroes. It was rather a situation in which their curiosity as journalists and their professional standards, step by step moved them ahead until they were brought into extreme situations, facing serious danger. In these situations they had to prove their readiness to deal with this, to take risks, to give up things, and to resist pressure. At a point I believe they almost became attracted to reporting from dangerous regions and now, when they live here in the quiet environment of Prague, I know that they get restless and want to go somewhere else.

It is now more than 10 years since the former Soviet Union broke down. How do you assess the development for freedom of expression in this region in these ten years?

Basically, I believe that you can observe in almost all of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, including the Balkans, an irreversible process towards democracy and freedom of expression. However, in the twelve years that have past since the collapse of communism, we have experienced countless things that were entirely new and that nobody expected. In some countries, the development has gone faster than anyone could predict, in other countries this process has gone along winding roads with many bypasses and surprises. Furthermore, the change of generation plays a role, as most of those journalists who write in today’s newspapers were only ten or fifteen years old when the democratisation process started. They have grown up and studied in surroundings much closer to true democratic values than the earlier generations. There is also another important factor in the development of freedom of expression in this part of the world, the globalisation process. The access to information from basically all over the world makes it more and more difficult to exercise closed societies with strong control of the media.

What are the challenges you see to this process?

There is of course still a long way to go in some countries in the region, and I hope that international focus will be on this process to drive it on. There is however another aspect I want to highlight. It is my impression that, in some countries, there is a threat, and perhaps 50 years from now this may be the biggest threat to freedom of expression. In a situation where there will be no direct political oppression and censorship, there might be much more complex issues, especially at the economic level, that may affect freedom of speech. Italy might represent an early form of this problem.

In this situation, voluntary, non-governmental human rights and civic groups must play an important role because these communities, by definition, are the ones to stand up against manipulation and censorship, also in its economic versions.

Another issue is directly related to the challenges to democracy that terrorist organisations represent – and to the answers from the democratic world.

This is certainly is a difficult issue. In fact I am personally able to see this potential conflict between freedom and security from both sides. I used to be an independent critic of politicians, looking upon this issue from the outside and then I became a politician myself. So, to some extent, I do understand that certain politicians get upset because the press gets to know everything; sometimes things are written in the newspapers even before the politicians actually decide them. And in some situations it is true that it may be necessary for a politician to say something to a person face to face first and only afterwards to share that information with the press.

But it cannot and should not be different. I believe that freedom should always be given the priority. For the media, the security issue has to do with responsibility and with professional standards. We must demand both from the media.

Governments in Central and Eastern Europe, also in the Czech Republic, have been criticized in past months for interfering with the media, trying to control them. What is your view on these cases?

I have always appreciated when my own country has received justified criticism.

I used to say the same under communism and indeed open, intellectual criticism contributed to highlight certain things that were wrong in this country and, at the time, Radio Free Europe, based in Munich, was the principal media to me. And when now, this kind of criticism is expressed, I would be the last person to be offended.

However, it is important to look upon this historically. In the post-communist countries the situation is very complicated because these countries have undergone and are undergoing immense changes. In the Western part of the world, you have not undergone the same dramatic transformation of ownership and privatisation.

In this transformation process, 1001 temptations have been generated, including sudden attempts to link political and economic power. This process needs constant monitoring from the press and civil society and well-researched, substantiated criticism is not just welcome, it is imperative for the continued development of democracy.

Let me quote an American judge who once said that the horrors with which we are flooded from the tabloid press are just a very small price that we pay for the great gift of freedom.

President Havel, in about a year you will step down as president of the Czech Republic. What are your expectations for your time in retirement?

I would prefer — if God gives me the health and the strength to do it — to put together a book of reflections, analysing my experience during my almost 13 years in office, as independently as possible. The press often asks me what I consider to have been my biggest mistakes. As I can, however, see from what they write about what they see as my mistakes, they have not yet noticed the biggest ones, and I am not very inclined to make their life easier by telling them myself.

This interview was made by representatives of the World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum.