Don't Tell Me Reporters "without" Borders Knows No Borders

Friday, December 10 2010 @ 09:29 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

The phrase "Fourth Estate" was coined by an 18th century's Irish statesman Edmund Burke but now it's commonly used to stress the independence of the media from the three branches of a government. Personally I'm inclined to include "independent" experts in sociopolitical issues in the fourth branch of the regime because they can't live a day without the favor from the media.

In reality, though, not a single mainstream media organization is independent of the other estates. That is why someone founded Reporters without Borders, or Reporters sans Frontieres in French, in Montpellier, France as a "press freedom watchdog" 25 years ago. The nonprofit organization, now based in Paris, never refers to itself as RWB presumably because a "W" can stand for "with" as well as "without." Instead, it uses the French abbreviation, RSF, even in an English publication.

I don't know, neither do I want to know, when RSF started releasing its annual press freedom ranking.

With these in mind, let's take a look at the following table:

Country Ranking
No. of Countries/Regions on the List 167 173 178
Canada 18 13 21
China 162 167 171
France 19 35 44
Germany 11 20 11
Italy 39 44 49
Japan 42 29 11
Russia 140 141 140
United Kingdom 30 23 19
United States (American Territory) 22 36 20
United States (Extra-Territorial, incl. Iraq) 108 119 99

In recent years RSF had already discredited itself as an independent body by favoring some countries and disfavoring some others apparently under the influence of obsolete ideologies flavored with liberal bias. But if you look at the most recent standings for the G8-plus-1 countries shown on the extreme right column, you will know these self-styled guardians of press freedom now look really like hordes of cretins.

Just take Japan for example.

Earlier this week, an Italian journalist by the name of Silvio Piersanti gave me an e-mail from his newsroom at Il Venerdi (Friday) to ask a very valid question. He was wondering about the reason behind Japan's quick ascension in the RSF ranking. He needed that information because he was writing an article on the Japanese media.

My answer was that there was no reason, whatsoever, for the phenomenal rise. The notoriously exclusive Kisha Kurabu (press club) system is still there and we don't see any sign that it's going to disappear anytime soon. Reporters and editors in the "information cartel" are still doing a good job by ingeniously standardizing, sanitizing and homogenizing news stories as Laurie Anne Freeman exquisitely described in her marvelous book, Closing the Shop.

The most recent news reports have it that in the face of the free fall of his cabinet approval rating, Prime Minister Naoto Kan is now thinking about joining forces with the largest opposition LDP over the yearend. In disseminating their speculation about Kan's survival strategy, media obscurantists are trying to immunize their gullible audiences for the idea that when something like that materializes, we call it a Grand Coalition. But actually, that's not what it is; it's yet another reunification of the twin parties coming from the same egg.

It's not that Japan's media are particularly in love with Akikan (an Empty Can) as Kan is dubbed lately. But they certainly know the last bastion of the current polity named the 1955 System is this Kisha Kurabu where the Fourth Estate can have a clandestine affair with any one of the other estates.

The first name of the Italian journalist reminded me of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon. I asked him if he thinks Italy will quickly overtake Japan on the RSF list when the other Silvio resigns as prime minister. In response, he wrote:

"I'm afraid that he won't resign. His ultimate dream is to end his political career as President of the Italian Republic after changing the constitution to give him more decisional power. (His model is his close friend Putin.) If he manages to survive the current crisis (we will know it on Dec. 14th's confidence vote in Parliament) we'll have to stand him for several more years, unfortunately. This coming Saturday, there will be a big march through Rome against Berlusconi. We expect about 2 million people taking part in it. (snip) [But] the real problem is that the majority of Italians like Berlusconi; his Byzantine style of life, his cynical shrewdness."

It seems to me that our Silvio is a little skeptical about the likelihood that Berlusconi readily steps down.

I know very little about the political climate and media landscape of Italy. The only thing I know for sure is that the Italian people didn't allow Benito Mussolini's propaganda machines to stay in business at the end of the war, and that according to the Wikipedia entry, Berlusconi entered the media business by setting up a small cable television company when he was in his mid-30s. Certainly these pieces of information tell me there are huge differences between the Italy's society and Japan's. But they don't help any more than that.

Italy and Japan, or any other two nations for that matter, are not really comparable. So it's just a joke to place Italy in No. 49 position while elevating Japan to No. 11 on the same list.

At the turn of the century we saw a new realm looming on the horizon of the Internet. Although we already knew that a Fifth Estate is not synonymous with unfettered freedom of speech, we saw a promise of it there.

But in the last ten years, the old four estates have joined forces and desperately fought back to abort the new realm. As a result, the fledgling estate has almost been hijacked by or merged into old establishments that wanted to secure alternative sources of income.

Against this backdrop, the Julian Assange case is a reminder that there still is a hope to use the Internet as an enabler of real change.

Actually it was the last acid test for those whose initial response to the mass-leaks was nothing but ambivalent. By now shysters retained by the media and nations' judicial branches have all proved to be part of the ancient regime.

Day in, day out, they are enthusiastically chitchatting over nondisclosure agreements that bind government employees, and new anti-leak legislation. But no matter how they screech, they cannot stop these people with the firm resolve to go extralegal and transcend national boundaries.

In the era of WikiLeaks where information knows no borders, the "press freedom watchdog" that does know borders has no raison d'etre.

In May 2009, I wrote, "Reporters without Borders should wake up or break up." Obviously, it has refused to wake up. Now the only thing it can do is to break up. No one will miss the annual results of the silly horse racing.

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