Like everyone involved with newspapers, I consider myself a supporter of freedom of the press. But earlier this month, I met some people for whom that has a meaning far beyond anything that has ever been asked of me. It is an honor to know them, and a pleasure as well.
The occasion was the mid-year meeting of the Inter American Press Association in Asunción, Paraguay, held March 13-16. Herald board member Elizabeth Ballantine serves on the organization's executive committee and was the inspiration for the trip.
IAPA traces its origins to the first Pan American Congress of Journalists held in Washington, D.C., and a 1926 resolution that called for the formation of a permanent inter-American press organization. That didn't come together until 1942, but the group now has about 1,400 members, individual publications or newspaper chains, representing a combined readership of 43 million.
The organization's central mission is to defend freedom of expression, particularly freedom of the press, throughout the Americas. And there is far more to that than civics-class lecturing.
For journalists in the United States, standing up for freedom of the press typically means complaining about a lack of transparency in government, filing a Freedom of Information Act request or taking an angry phone call after publishing something controversial. Pushing the envelope could involve defending a truly unpopular person or rooting out real corruption. And sometimes there are risks to that.
But few American journalists are actually killed on the job. Not counting a spate of murders in the early 1990s involving what the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists describes as "immigrant journalists working in languages other than English" - and presumably dealing with conflicts specific to those immigrant communities - as near as I can tell, in the United States only two journalists have been killed for their work in more than 30 years: An editor investigating specific criminal activity in Oakland, Calif., was gunned down in 2007, and an Arizona Republic reporter was blown up in 1976 after digging into the machinations of a suspected mobster. Outside of war zones, U.S. journalists these days rarely are in real danger.
As my brief time in Paraguay illustrated, however, that's not the case in Latin America. The local paper in Asunción was closed for five years by the former dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Its owner was jailed twice.
One guy I met there grew up in the United States after his family was forced into exile by the Salvador Allende's government in Chile. A brother of his was kidnapped by guerillas.
Another new friend lost four family members in Argentina's "dirty war." As I understand it, two were killed by rebels and two were "disappeared" by the military. He took his first baby steps at the home of an IAPA member in Kansas where his family had taken refuge, although his father stayed in Argentina to run the newspaper. And from what I'm told, those stories are not unusual among IAPA members.
Given that IAPA members are mostly owners of newspapers or newspaper chains, I suspect political conservatism is the norm among them. The organization's agenda, however, is not ideological. It stood up for freedom of the press against leftists like Allende and against his successor, the right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet. It opposed the tyranny of Argentina's military junta and the depredations of the leftist guerillas who opposed the generals. It confronted Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship and the current president, Daniel Ortega. It's been at odds with Fidel Castro for decades, and one of its biggest complaints now is with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.
IAPA also opposes attempts to use government budgets to influence newspaper coverage, as well as Latin American laws that make it a crime to criticize government officials. Both are ongoing battles.
None of this is to romanticize things. By and large, these are privileged and powerful men - and they are almost all men - who are acting very much in their own interest.
But, in the process, they also are defending ours. In a global village, everyone's freedom affects everyone else. With our economies increasingly intertwined and our populations ever more linked electronically, the need to know doesn't stop at borders. Restricting the press in one country limits the freedom of people in others.
More to the point, IAPA's defense of press freedom raises the bar for the rest of us. Rather than diminishing our relatively mundane quarrels about access and secrecy, the trials of our South American counterparts gives them added meaning. The challenge is to live up to that.
Bill Roberts is the Herald's editorial page editor. Reach him at 375-4560 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.