Freedom of the press is a cardinal American right—a pillar of our democracy, a guarantor of our freedom and our free institutions. Cherished by all Americans, it is perhaps especially sacred to American liberals and the left. Without it, the injustices exposed by the civil rights movement, the government's duplicity about the Vietnam War, the abuses of the Nixon administration and the Watergate scandal—to name but a few landmarks—might never have come to light.
But freedom of the press isn't just important to our own mature democracy. It's no less vital to the democracies of our neighbors, particularly in Latin America. And it's under attack there.
Here are some examples.
There's nothing new about Latin American governments trying to muzzle the press. For decades, Mexico's government used its monopoly over the supply of newsprint, combined with bribes and government advertising contracts, to keep the media friendly. What is new is the idea of employing these tactics while claiming to be authentic, competitive democracies!
In the face of this, President Obama's silence is remarkable. Sure, his administration's spokespeople—at agencies like the State Department—have issued predictable and obligatory expressions of concern and condemnations at each latest outrage. But when it comes to press freedom—in Latin America or elsewhere in the world—the administration has kept is biggest gun in the barn: President Obama himself. As far as can be seen, he's made no major public pronouncements, much less mounted a sustained campaign, against this problem—including at last month's (failed) Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia.
There are doubtless many reasons for this. For starters, there are no votes in it—especially in an election season. Obama, his team, and his core supporters are surely reluctant to be seen to interfere in other countries' 'internal affairs'—partly from their unassuaged guilt over America's previous, in their view unfortunate, interventions and involvements. And there's doubtless a certain susceptibility to the 'social justice' narrative of these populist leaders and regimes—tempting some on the American left, Obama's core supporters, to give them a pass.
But it's a pity that President Obama hasn't chosen to use his own still considerable moral authority to publicly condemn these abuses of press freedom in our hemisphere. It is a pity that his team hasn't persuaded him to use his own historic stature to shame and embarrass the demagogues in our neighborhood into respecting this basic pillar of democratic societies. Were he to do so—even at this late date—President Obama would not only put his unique stature to the service of a noble cause and make a major contribution to freedom for the citizens of our hemispheric neighborhood. He could, by doing so, single-handedly redeem the themeless and largely content-less Latin America policy that will otherwise be his legacy.