Press freedom and national interest

THE Bush White House and the US media have never had an easy relationship at the best of times. Now there is revelation that President George W Bush has been summoning newspaper editors lately in an attempt to prevent publication of stories and material he considers against ‘national interests’.

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Published: Mon 9 Jan 2006, 9:39 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:07 PM

Last month the president reportedly held confidential meetings with the editors of the New York Times and The Washington Post to persuade them not to publish reports that raised serious questions about the US war on terror and human rights.

This came after the Washington Post had published Dana Priest’s November 2 report disclosing the existence of secret CIA prisons in Europe and the Middle East, that kept terror suspects away from the long arm of the US law. At the meeting, Bush is said to have requested the two leading newspapers not to publish the other damning story disclosing the eavesdropping on US citizens. Of course, the two newspapers refused to oblige the White House and went ahead with the report by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau that spilled the beans on domestic spying. Which is a testament to the robust freedom of media in the US. Notwithstanding the US war on terror, the country’s media has largely managed to retain its freedom and withstand all challenges to its independence and integrity. The media refused to accept the writ of the administration twice — both in the case of torture abroad and domestic spying — although it is said that the Washington Post sat on the CIA prisons story for a whole year before publishing it last month.

Since 9/11, the US administration has been taking the line that these being extraordinary times, the media should keep in view the so-called national interests in reporting or not reporting certain stories. However, in a free-spirited and democratic society that the US is, it is not always possible for an administration, or for that matter any administration, to force the media to dance to its tunes. While governments may have their own reasons — often flaunted as the all-inclusive national interest — for asking the media to go easy on a given issue or keep something from public, the media has to play its own role as society’s conscience keeper and watchdog. It must act both as the sounding board and mirror in a democracy offering the much-needed reality check from time to time to people as well as the powers that be. The US media has been playing this role effectively and efficiently and must continue to do so in the future as well. It’s thanks to this corrective role that successive administrations have been at times forced to pause and ponder — and change their course whenever necessary.

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