A Review of Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad

Vol. 30 No. 1

Reviewed by

Bruce D. Brown is the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and is also of counsel at BakerHostetler. Aaron Mackey is the Jack Nelson Freedom of Information Fellow at the Reporters Committee.

The first “rule” for U.S attorneys trying to bring free press principles to an emerging democracy or a developing country is to forget any knowledge of the broad protections for journalists in the United States. Humility and an understanding of local culture and history often go further in establishing press freedoms abroad than even the most passionate recounting of domestic legal pillars such as New York Times v. Sullivan.1 This tenet is evident in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad, a collection of essays edited by Richard N. Winfield for the International Senior Lawyers Project.

Although summarizing the wide-ranging and fascinating stories by the seasoned media lawyers who recounted their efforts to build better press freedoms internationally in Exporting the Matrix can be difficult, a few themes resonate. Chief among them is the consensus voiced by nearly all of the contributors that the widely held belief of Americans in American press freedom exceptionalism—which many authors believe in themselves—can sometimes do more harm than good when trying to build or broaden press freedoms abroad.

Be it conflicts with social or religious norms or a fear of American colonialism in the guise of U.S. free press laws, to name but a few of the stumbling blocks, leaders in emerging democracies and developing countries, including journalists and the lawyers who support them, often ignore or react defensively to efforts to export the principles and cases underlying the First Amendment. The authors who provided their reflections on attempts to broaden press freedoms in countries such as China, Kuwait, Ghana, and Yemen agree that an appeal to international treaties that recognize free expression, to broader principles of the necessity of citizen oversight in a democracy, or to economic or social justifications for transparency laws all seem to gain more traction with foreign leaders than straight recitations of U.S. law.

At the same time, in the right moment, bringing detailed knowledge of U.S. press freedoms to the table can be essential. As Kurt Wimmer, Covington & Burling LLP partner and Newspaper Association of America general counsel, noted in reflecting upon several years of working to enhance press freedoms abroad, U.S. law can be incredibly helpful when officials are curious about how American courts would handle particular issues or when officials seek an articulation of the basic principles that support the various federal and state freedom of information laws in the United States.2

“But overall, the key is to have a broad international outlook, sensitive to the regional and national laws in which media reform must occur,” Wimmer wrote. “Pressing an American option where it cannot succeed only results in a loss of credibility and a loss of an opportunity to move a law closer to protection of freedom of expression through other, more persuasive, means.”3

Essential guides for any First Amendment lawyer heading abroad as part of a mission to expand press freedoms are the various media travelogues that provide macroperspectives and microperspectives on how to best implement stronger protections for journalists in other countries. For example, the essay by Kristin L. Mendoza, Latham & Watkins LLP associate, delivers high-level philosophical training for those who desire to work abroad: according to Mendoza, the key to expanding press freedoms internationally is to “keep talking”:

I have come to believe that, of all the work that we do—whether writing or presenting conference papers, participating in student moot courts, training lawyers and journalists, sponsoring campaigns to press governments to advance the cause of freedom of expression and the rule of law, or defending journalists facing defamation charges—the most important part is the conversation we have with the individuals we encounter on our missions abroad.4

Other chapters, such as those written by University of Oklahoma College of Law professor emeritus Peter Krug and Netherlands senior judge and professor Willem F. Korthals Altes, provide practical tips for creating curricula for educational endeavors as well as best practices for facilitating meaningful exchanges between various stakeholders, such as by using small group sessions or breakout discussions.

But Exporting the Matrix is more than a primer on how to effectively advocate for broader free expression rights in other countries. Collectively, the essays also serve as an important reflection on the successes and failures of a generation of individuals who have dedicated much of their lives to working on an incredibly complex problem. That is, the book should certainly inform the types of programs—and the contours of their policy goals—that international organizations support in the future as they seek to provide journalists around the globe with greater press freedoms. In this regard, although the essayists were looking back on their efforts, the collection outlines a path forward on how future campaigns might be more effective and ultimately enhance press freedoms abroad.

For example, the insights of David L. Cook, of counsel at Sills Cummis & Gross PC, into how to remove criminal penalties in foreign libel laws, broaden the statutory definition of “journalist,” and repeal content regulations are applicable far beyond his work in Yemen on behalf of the International Senior Lawyers Project. In particular, Cook’s essay demonstrates how patience and compromise are essential when dealing with countries where press freedoms were previously thin or nonexistent. “For many journalists, traditional ideals and decades of censorship have become second nature and are not shed effortlessly, preventing more modern concepts of free expression from taking hold,” Cook wrote.5

Exporting the Matrix is not just for those interested in working abroad to expand press freedoms. The captivating stories and the insights gleaned from the reflections of these free speech pioneers serve as a meaningful reminder of the hard work, deft lawyering, and careful drafting that went into establishing the broad and, in many ways, unparalleled press freedoms that U.S. journalists enjoy. Indeed, the essay by Media Law Resource Center Executive Director Sandra S. Baron on her time spent in Russia invites readers to be grateful not only for the substantial body of media law that may sometimes be taken for granted but also for how the larger legal system and our belief in the rule of law anchor such freedoms.

U.S. media lawyers and their journalist clients too rarely reflect on the luxury of having a substantial body of law, of having a relatively clear understating and appreciation of precedent, and a judicial system where judges, at least a fair percentage of the time, can be trusted to understand and apply the law.6

The essays also underscore how media law—regardless of its country of origin—continues to evolve. As Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the New York Committee on Open Government, discussed, other countries, including Mexico, have arguably eclipsed the U.S. Freedom of Information Act by improving the ways in which citizens obtain access to government records. “Mexico did what we couldn’t have done when our laws in the United States were drafted in the 1970s and ’80s: they built information technology into their laws,” Freeman wrote. “We were once ahead in our open government efforts, but now we’re playing catch-up.”7

Thus, as much as the tales in this book are about exporting press freedoms in developing countries and emerging democracies, in some ways they also encourage the United States to import some foreign concepts that may lead to an even more robust domestic press. But such revelations are only possible when U.S. media lawyers cast aside, at least for a moment, their reliance on the United States’ broad legal protections for journalists.

As the essays assembled in Exporting the Matrix show, to build a robust, free international press in the future, media lawyers working abroad should check their encyclopedias of U.S. press law at the gate. But, these authors remind us, no one should lose sight of the important values that animate domestic press freedoms when looking to find ways to connect those ideals with local values and cultures. It is a delicate balance and, as the book demonstrates, even the most conscientious efforts are not always successful. The collection nonetheless provides a thoughtful road map that should help pave the way for the development of a free and vibrant foreign press.

Endnotes

1. 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

2. Kurt Wimmer, International Media Law Reform: One Size Never Fits All, in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad 13 (Richard N. Winfield ed., 2012).

3. Id.

4. Kristin L. Mendoza, The Idea of Information, in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad, supra note 2, at 41.

5. David L. Cook, Yemen: Transparency Interrupted, in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad, supra note 2, at 69.

6. Sandra S. Baron, When Russia Was on the Verge of Reform, in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad, supra note 2, at 97.

7. Robert J. Freeman, Adventures with Freedom of Information, in Exporting the Matrix: The Campaign to Reform Media Laws Abroad, supra note 2, at 57.

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