How We Can Keep Press Freedom from Withering Away?
While a free press means that a journalist has rights, it does not mean that she or he is right.
Media freedoms appear increasingly under siege around the world, with concerning signs that achieving middle-income status is no guarantee for an independent political watchdog in the form of the press.
Farhana Haque Rahman
The news is constant and disheartening.
The death this week of a LGBT magazine editor in Bangladesh shows that around the world, those who speak up are too often themselves tragically silenced.
In Mexico, journalists are knocked off – by criminal gangs, or maybe by colluding public authorities – and only rarely is their death punished. The fact that the government has a special prosecutor for such crimes does not seem to have any impact.
In South Africa, a new bill on national security allows for whistle blowers to be jailed for decades – the first legislation since the end of apartheid that curtails a freedom many once fought for.
The arrest of newspaper editors in Turkey is alarming. In Tunisia, the media’s main enemy is no longer tyranny in the form of a dictator, the new constitution tried to make defamation and libel – often flexible categories – punishable by fines only, but those the government often insist on use the penal code. A pending bill that would criminalize “denigration” of security forces.
Security threats, not always well-defined, are increasingly cited to promote further restrictions – in France, Belgium and beyond. The U.S. Senate has proposed requiring Internet companies to report “terrorist activity” and a UN Security Council committee recently called for Internet platforms to be liable for hosting content posted by extremists – even though the Islamic State alone posts an estimated 90,000 posts a day and has been known to taunt the social media platforms they use for trying to stop them.
Proposed Internet regulations are not just about terrorism or alleged civil war. They can be used to muffle news about deadly industrial accidents, government corruption and more. China wants to forbid foreign ownership of online media.
Censorship can use commercial pressure. Many feel the reason a major Kenyan daily sacked its editor was out of fear criticism of the government would lead to an advertising boycott and the risk of bankruptcy. The recent purchase of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post by Alibaba’s founder, widely seen as close to Beijing, will be watched closely.
Looser defamation laws – proposed in the U.S. by a presidential candidate – have a long history of being used to silence people through long Kafka-esque judicial action.
One of the stranger cases – yet no less symptomatic of the trend – was the Indian government’s firing of an educational newspaper’s editor for having published a story suggesting that iron is an important nutritional element and can be obtained from beef or veal – a taboo food according to the ideological Hinduism championed by the current ruling party.
What to do?
There is a broadly-agreed narrative that claims a free and independent press is an essential part of any genuine democracy. It has long been held that while there may be stages along the way for developing countries, upholding media freedom is a strong sign of commitment that bodes well for improved governance across the board and thus better human welfare for all.
I have not heard one coherent argument claiming that this is no longer the case. Political leaders should be pressured to state publicly that they do not believe in media freedom’s merits – which few will do – rather than hide behind vague security threats that often sound like the rumour mill that preceded the guillotines of the French Revolution. This can work, as shown last year when international pressure led President Joko Widodo of Indonesia to force a senior minister to drop new rules curtailing the rights of foreign journalists in the country.
Public pressure on governments to make sure legislative threats to the press are reversed and threats against media freedom properly policed are essential. A Swedish law that makes it illegal for a reporter to reveal an anonymous source warrants consideration for emulation. And this highlights how journalists themselves must help achieve the goal.
Self-regulation can work, as Scandinavian countries show. Independent press councils can serve as a powerful forum – ideally enhanced with a public code of ethics that all parties can invoke – both for journalists themselves and readers and other stakeholders who may complain about their work.
After all, while a free press means that a journalist has rights, it does not mean that she or he is right.
To prove effective, a whole ecosystem must be set up. Sweden’s Freedom of the Press Act is now several centuries old, and the country has a constitutional principle requiring that all public records be available to the public. It is true that the experience of the Nordic countries is historically linked to the absence of feudalism, but it is an implicit goal of all democracy to overcome such legacies, so setting up institutions that mutually reinforce the free flow of information is part of any sustainable development in the interest of all – and not a perk upon arrival.
Digital publishing has, to be sure, raised thorny questions, notably about whether expressions that insult cultural sensitivities – whatever they may be – contribute to the culture a free press needs and is meant to foster. Opinions may vary on where appropriate limits may lie. But all authorities – precisely because they hold power – should accept the principle that the free press exists to hold them accountable, and that suppressing journalists will not bolster their power but ultimately erode it.