World Press Freedom Day: A Free Press and a Free Nonprofit Sector

Maggie, Lisa, Bart, Marge and Homer: the five members of the Simpson family. One in every five Americans knows who they are. But what are the five freedoms of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? Only one in 34 of us know! Do you?

You probably remembered freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In addition to freedom of religion, two lesser known freedoms define a free nonprofit sector: the freedom to assemble, and the freedom to petition.

We nonprofiteers spend a lot of time railing against the "the media." It can be frustrating trying to get coverage of our work, only to see the nightly news filled with parsing of the word "bitter" or a parade of celebrity rehab updates. But "the media" in the U.S. is so much more - from creative community radio and independent web-based publications to ethnic dailies and tv stations.

A California Journalist Loses His Life

This breadth of journalistic outlets is just one reason why we should pay attention on World Press Freedom Day. Global human rights advocates mark the day on May 3 by honoring those who've lost their lives or been jailed for bringing truth to the public. This is the first World Press Freedom Day since last year's assassination of Oakland, California, journalist Chauncey Bailey who was investigating a small sect linked to as many as eight murders. And it was only last year that blogger Josh Wolf was released from a San Francisco jail after 226 days for refusing to turn over a videotape from an anti-corporate demonstration.

Corporate Control of Media

An additional concern for us nonprofiteers is the corporatization of media - particularly broadcast outlets and daily newspapers. Unlike in many other countries, the primary media outlets here are for-profit, rather than nonprofit, enterprises. Outside of stations with all-news formats, news has all but disappeared from most local commercial radio stations. And growing corporatization has long fueled ongoing concerns about protection of First Amendment freedoms.

Nonetheless, it's worth reflecting on the impact of press freedom on our work as nonprofit people. With their deeply symbiotic relationship, a free press and a free nonprofit sector are the twin engines of democracy. Nonprofit organizations (or nongovernmental organizations - NGOs, as they're known internationally), take action on what the press exposes in orderto make social change. And without nonprofits, the press would be forced to rely largely on government and business press releases.

Historical Partnership

U.S. history is replete with the twinning of these two freedoms: the journalist Ida B. Wells fiercely organizing against lynching, the Pittsburgh Courier's WWII campaign with the NAACP for "V for Victory at Home, V for Victory Abroad;" the antiwar GI press giving other GIs as well as activists the information they needed.

This World Press Freedom Day, let's remember the deaths of 157 murdered Iraqi journalists; the independent Chinese journalists suffering in the run-up to the Olympics, and the Zimbabweans trying desperately to inform their compatriots by mounting short-wave broadcasts from Los Angeles and London. CPJ will issue an index ranking the countries in which journalists are killed with impunity. Our next-door neighbor, Mexico, ranks right up there.

A Flawed System; a Freedom Worth Protecting

Here at home, there's lots not to like about the U.S. press. But this May 3, at least for one day, we can set our grumbling aside. Let's salute an essential partner to nonprofits in social change. Let's take a moment to acknowledge the fragility of press freedom, which we so often take for granted, and remember that it needs active protection all year, every year.

"This is our country," hip-hop dean LL Cool J reminds us. In a video on the First Amendment, Can't Touch This, at the Newseum in Washington, DC, he says, "Our country has a lot of diversity. It hasa lot of different people with a lot of different ideas. All of those ideas deserve to be heard. All of them."

Comments (3)

  • It's interesting to realize that the future of the traditional media, particularly newspapers, may require they take the nonprofit route. The traditional business model is being fractured by the free Internet. I see no way to put that egg back together. One possible option for them is to jettison shareholders and survive as nonprofits. It still seems to me to be an unlikely alternative, but that said, I can imagine it for the hometown papers if not the national media. One thing is certain: Despite their flaws, the traditional media offer a voice that we can't afford to lose ... and a voice that CANNOT be replaced by the Drudge Report.

    May 02, 2008
  • This option (nonprofit hometown papers) is intriguing to me, but it's hard to understand how it would work. What would the economics look like? The governance? Would it be sort of like our local public radio stations? I completely agree that the egg can't go back together, and also that we need the traditional media. Wish there was more ferment about real solutions.

    May 06, 2008
  • This article in the Muslim Observer brings up the topic of threats to ethnic media reporting on their own communities, including Korean, Sri Lankan, African American, and Vietnamese communities in the United States. It was a sharp reminder to me that threats to free journalism can come from many places.

    May 08, 2008

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