Freedom of press basic to all other freedoms
Written by W. Evan Golder
Sometimes it takes a story from somewhere else to help us appreciate what we have and to alert us to possible threats of losing it.
Last month The Dallas Morning News ran such a story. It concerned Pius Njawe, a newspaper publisher in the central African nation of Cameroon who has been arrested 120 times and jailed three times. The most recent charge? Running a story that the country's president was sick.
Specifically, the government charged him with spreading false news when he reported that Cameroon President Paul Biya had collapsed while watching a soccer game. Njawe insists the facts are correct, based on reports of three witnesses. Nevertheless, he was jailed for 10 months. And when his pregnant wife brought him food in jail, prison guards beat her so severely that their daughter was delivered stillborn.
"You're very lucky to have a country with free expression," Njawe told a group of students at Lewisville (Texas) High School. "In my country, [free expression] is not possible." Njawe warned Americans that we should recognize freedom of the press as "a precious allowance."
I was in Dallas to attend an editors' conference at UMR Communications, where United Church News is printed. The day after this story ran, I learned from a keynote speaker—University of Houston professor Jerry Waite—of the "symbiotic and sometimes uneasy" relationship between printers and the church over the centuries.
On the one hand, without monks who laboriously hand-copied classic manuscripts, including the scriptures, during the dark ages, the entire knowledge base of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians would have been lost. Yet, on the other hand, clergy and royalty generally agreed that this information should be censored, that ordinary people should not be allowed access to books—religious or secular—because they couldn't understand what the books contained.
The real reason, Waite pointed out, was that knowledge equals power, and the church and royalty weren't about to share power.
This attitude changed with Protestantism, Waite said, whose history is inextricably woven with print, beginning with Gutenberg's printing of indulgences, a key cause for the reformation. Martin Luther's theses were disseminated by print and when King Henry VIII broke with Rome, he ordered an English Bible placed in every church in the realm. (Our UCC history includes the beginning of Pilgrim Press in 1608 in England as an alternative press.)
Pius Njawe's warning to the high school students and Jerry Waite's history of printing come together at the point of censorship.
There always will be those who will seek to limit what the rest of us can read and know. For that reason, those who print and those who read must always resist censorship. "The erosion of a free press can lead to greater problems if people aren't careful," says Njawe. "Without press freedom, there's no guarantee for any other freedom."
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.