By Asma Ghribi
Daniel Pearl Fellow
Coming from Tunisia, where only three years ago people started enjoying what for Americans is the First Amendment to their Constitution, I’m still accustoming myself to freedom. It’s not easy to just embrace it — having lived my whole life in a country where I had to think twice before saying anything.
For so many years, filtering my thoughts and censoring myself were as natural to myself as speaking.
Some people say you only know the importance of things when you lose them. For me, I only grew to know how important freedom of expression was when I gained it.
This lack of experience with freedom of expression isn’t unique to me among Tunisians. We just passed a constitution that has been praised by observers from around the world as guaranteeing basic human rights such as freedom of conscience (freedom to worship as one pleases) and freedom of expression. However, there are limits to these freedoms. For example, Article 6 of the Constitution stipulates that the government should protect “sanctities” of religion and spread “moderation.” At the same time it outlaws public accusations of apostasy.
Religion for Tunisia is still an issue too sensitive to be allowed a full, uncensored public debate.
Here in the United States, freedom of the press doesn’t exclude sensitive topics: even issues considered to be taboo are open to discussion.
For instance, no issue in America is more sensitive than terrorism.
And it’s true that the U.S. government has, since 9/11, allowed for certain infringements on individual rights which could be seen as circumventing normal legal procedures when suspected terrorism in involved. iHowever, a strong and vocal contingent of the press devoted to criticizing these practices and defending the human and legal rights of those accused.
In Tunisia, terrorism is also perhaps the most sensitive current issue. But by contrast with the U.S., when a journalist attempted to give voice to individuals sympathetic to those accused of terrorism, he was promptly punished by a quasi-governmental body and condemned by the national journalists’ union, known by its French acronym SNJT.
However, while freedom of opinion in America is absolute, I’ve learned that freedom of the press does have some limits.
When Glenn Greenwald and other journalists broke the NSA spying scandal, President Obama spoke of a national dialogue on the balance of privacy and security. Yet federal prosecutors quickly moved to charge the source of that story, Edward Snowden, with espionage.
Beyond pressure on whistleblowers, journalists’ access to the executive branch has also been relatively limited. White House press conferences frequently don’t allow questions to be asked directly to the president. This seems to be a worsening trend.
According to a Politico poll, the number of White House correspondents who thought Obama was less open than Bush was eight times as high as those who thought the opposite. These may have been among the reasons that led Reporters Without Borders to drop America 13 places on its 2014 World Press Freedom Index.
The United States, more than any other nation, has a bigger responsibility to set a good example because it is the most powerful democracy in the world. Its foreign policy strives to promote values like democracy and press freedom. There’s a saying in Arabic, “فاقد الشيء لا يعطيه,” which in English means roughly, “If you’re missing something, you can’t give it.”
While the U.S. is far from missing press freedom, it should keep in mind that the best way to influence others abroad is by setting a good example at home.