Free Press: During Crises

Defend the value of a free press: In times of crisis

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What is the status of Free Expression in your country, your region, in the world?

  • Class discussion: Take a look at the World Map of Press Freedom put out every year by Freedom House. Where is your country on that map? Do you think the map is accurate? Why or why not?
  • Student exercise: Find case studies of media wrestling with censorship and write them up. You might find it helpful to take a look at the site of Article 19 ( and this page of Article 19 gives links to press freedom organizations around the world). For international definitions of censorship (see here and here).

Restrictions on media in times of crisis:

Governments often restrict information, access and expression during times of crisis. Especially when the country’s national security is at stake, there can be both government and public pressure on journalists to take sides and reveal sources.

In the name of anti-terrorism, principles and values that were decades, even centuries, in the making may be put at risk.”

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

  • Student or small-group exercise: Citizen reporting—especially following grassroots protests or political turmoil—may be a way to work around government censorship. Find an example of a website or other digital media technology (i.e. SMS via cellphones) that has gotten important news out to the public at a time when the mainstream press has been unable to do so.

➢ See if you can discover if after the news becomes available through these more informal methods, whether government censorship of newspapers and radio and TV stations continues. Are traditional bricks and mortar media able to communicate more kinds of information than they would have if the non-traditional media had not gotten there first?

  • Student or small-group exercise: Explore the history of a Truth and Reconciliation commission in a post-conflict country (see this site for a listing of commissions.) What role have media played in those commissions? How important have media been in documenting abuses and in reporting on the discovery of past wrongdoing by the government?
  • Role-playing exercise: Divide the class into two. One half of the students in the class are government officials, the other half are journalists. Violence has broken out on the border of your country.

➢ Have the students who are the government officials decide whether they will allow journalists access to cover the fighting on the front lines or whether journalists will only be allowed to attend the daily press conferences held by military officials. What would be the rationale for not allowing them access to the frontlines? Why would the government want to keep journalists from the fighting?

  1. If the student-government officials decide to allow the journalists access to the frontlines, they must then decide whether they will censor the reporting—i.e. the journalists would have to submit their stories and photographs or videotape to government censors. If journalists try to circumvent the censors, their news outlets could be penalized for running uncensored stories. In that case, should the news outlets be fined and if so, how much? Should the news outlets be closed down? If either punishment were to be levied what would the public’s likely response be? Would the government prefer the public’s displeasure over censorship to their greater knowledge of what was happening in the fighting? Why or why not?

➢ Have the students who are the journalists decide what they are going to do if access is denied to the front lines. Will they just report from the daily military briefings? Will they try to sneak into the front lines? If they try to bypass the restrictions on frontline coverage, how will their news outlets use their reporting? What kinds of stories will they be losing out on if they acquiesce and do not go to the front lines?

  1. Since most media are in fact competitors with other media, there is a disincentive for journalists from competing news outlets to work together. But what might make such journalists decide that they should jointly fight the government’s denial of access? If they worked together to pressure the government for access would they be more likely to gain the ability to see the fighting?
  2. What if the government came back and said: “We’ll let one print reporter and one TV camera up to the frontlines. We’ll choose who will go, but all the media will be able to use that coverage as if the reporting had been done by their own journalists.” Would that satisfy the journalists’ interest in covering the frontline fighting? Why or why not? What might journalists counter offer?
  3. What if the government agreed to let all the journalists go up to the frontlines on the condition that all dispatches be subject to censorship? How should the journalists respond? Is that a reasonable request when military secrets are at stake? What other possible options are there in covering war beyond censorship?
  4. Would it be better if the government said to journalists: “You don’t have to submit your dispatches, but you will not be allowed to report about civilians being killed or deaths as a result of friendly fire”—in effect asking the journalists to self-censor themselves. Should journalists do so? Why or why not