The PJ Tatler

Obama Leaves Biggest Jailer of Media Off His Press Freedom Day Message

President Obama marked World Press Freedom Day with an extensive statement about “journalists who have sacrificed their lives, freedom or personal well-being in pursuit of truth and justice” — while conveniently neglecting to mention the country that holds more reporters and bloggers behind bars than any other.

“While this year has seen some positive developments, like the release of journalists along with hundreds of other political prisoners in Burma, arbitrary arrests and detentions of journalists continue across the globe,” Obama said. “As we condemn recent detentions of journalists like Mazen Darwish, a leading proponent of free speech in Syria, and call for their immediate release, we must not forget others like blogger Dieu Cay, whose 2008 arrest coincided with a mass crackdown on citizen journalism in Vietnam, or journalist Dawit Isaak who has been held incommunicado by the Eritrean government for over a decade without formal charge or trial.”

He continued with mentions of threatened Ecuadorian journalist Cesar Ricaurte and exiled Belarusian democratic activist Natalya Radzina and “restrictions on freedom of movement like those imposed on Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

“In some cases, it is not just governments threatening the freedom of the press,” Obama said. “It is also criminal gangs, terrorists, or political factions. No matter the cause, when journalists are intimidated, attacked, imprisoned, or disappeared, individuals begin to self-censor, fear replaces truth, and all of our societies suffer. A culture of impunity for such actions must not be allowed to persist in any country.”

The president mentioned perils “across the Middle East, North Africa and beyond,” but mentioned China nowhere in his statement.

According to Reporters Without Borders, China currently holds 98 journalists and cyberdissidents behind bars. On the organization’s Predators of Press Freedom list, President Hu Jintao is called “the leading jailer of press freedom defenders.”

“During the last year of Hu’s term, information restrictions, especially online, have been strengthened, as has the propaganda department’s media censorship,” the press freedom group writes. “Summonses to appear before officials and other pressures on journalists, netizens and dissidents have become more frequent. Working conditions for foreign journalists have steadily worsened.”

The omission is likely hardly accidental, as the White House is extra touchy today over questions about whether the U.S. will anger China to give asylum to Chen Guangcheng, a human-rights lawyer who has fought to try to protect the rural poor from forced sterilizations and abortions at the hands of Chinese authorities.

(Note: I led a panel at the United Nations for World Press Freedom Day 2006 and was honored to meet Watson Meng of Boxun News — an underground news site now under fresh attack by the PRC)