When President Franklin Roosevelt outlined the “four essential human freedoms” seventy years ago, he began where every small-“d” democrat must: “The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.”
From the founding of the American experiment, it has been understood that freedom of expression is the essential building block of democracy. At the individual level, this means freedom of speech. At the collective level, this means freedom of assembly. At the societal level, this means freedom of the press.
Roosevelt recognized, as World War II raged, that Americans would fight and die for freedom not in the abstract but in reality. And at the core of that fight would be a struggle to assure that citizens of all lands would be free not merely to speak but to speak truth to power—and that a free press would be at the ready to hold the powerful to account.
In Egypt this week, forces aligned with President Hosni Mubarak have effectively declared war on freedom of the press.They do so not because of some vague antipathy toward reporters but because of their understanding that a free press holds the powerful account and provides the powerless with the information they need to become their own governors.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ): “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak unleashed an unprecedented and systematic attack on international media [Thursday] as his supporters assaulted reporters in the streets while security forces began obstructing and detaining journalists covering the unrest that threatens to topple his government.”
“This is a dark day for Egypt and a dark day for journalism. The systematic and sustained attacks documented by CPJ leave no doubt that a government-orchestrated effort to target the media and suppress the news is well under way. With this turn of events, Egypt is seeking to create an information vacuum that puts it in the company of the world’s worst oppressors, countries such as Burma, Iran and Cuba,” says CPJ executive director Joel Simon. “We hold President Mubarak personally responsible for this unprecedented action, and call on the Egyptian government to reverse course immediately.”
But the demand is not only on Mubarak and those around him, including his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, who has taken the lead in encouraging attacks on foreign journalists. It is also on the Obama administration, which has yet to make a clear break with an Egyptian regime that continues to collect $1.5 billion annually in US funding—most of it going to security forces.
The point here is not that journalists deserve special protections, nor unique expressions of concern. They do not. The point is that when journalists come under attack, it is not just freedom of expression that is assaulted. When journalism comes under attack, the fundamental underpinning of civil and democratic society are undermined—and the power of the autocrat, the strongman, the thug is extended.