In China on December 5th 2013, US Vice President Joseph R. Biden spoke about the role of the free press in a democratic society, declaring that:
Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences.
Though he was referring to China’s restrictive policies regarding reporting by foreign news organisations, the same line of thinking can and should be applied to the rest of the world, including countries that pride themselves on freedom in media and speech. Despite Biden’s words, even the US media is a guilty party in its own way, exposing the best instead of the real aspects of the nation.
It’s 2014 and it’s time to look at the ways in which the last year has shown how the press isn’t as free as we’d like to think.
1. The Guardian Editor That Was Tried for Committing…. Journalism?
In the same month that Biden was making his speech, Alan Rusbridger, editor in chief of the Guardian, was brought before a panel of MPs and questioned about the newspaper’s coverage of Edward Snowden’s leakage of national security material. Rusbridger was actually asked if he loved his country, to which he retorted:
Yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of a democracy and the nature of a free press.
Does loyalty to one’s nation mean turning a blind eye to its realities? Does that logic apply not only to newspapers, who are obliged to print the truth, but to the rest of us in our everyday discussions and criticisms?
2. Press Regulation In The UK Has Become a Reality
The end of 2013 saw the Privy Council grant a Royal Charter on press regulation that created a kind of watchdog system for newspapers, which media organisations had a choice to sign up with or stay outside of. Publishers and editors fought the charter until literally the last moment, though to little success, calling it a ‘deeply illiberal proposal’. You can judge for yourself, as the charter proclaims:
1.1.There shall be a body corporate known as the Recognition Panel.
1.2.There shall be a Board of the Recognition Panel which shall be responsible for the conduct and management of the Recognition Panel’s business and affairs, in accordance with the further terms of this Charter.
1.3. The Members of the Board of the Recognition Panel shall be the only Members of the body corporate, but membership of the body corporate shall not enable any individual to act otherwise than through the Board to which he belongs.
3. 70 Journalists Were Killed in 2013
- Chechnya, Russia
- Ogaden, Ethiopia
- Jammu and Kashmir, India
- Waziristan, Pakistan
- Agadez, Niger
- North Korea
What’s the link between this list of seemingly random places, besides their states of politically charged turmoil? They’re all closed to foreign reporters – and for good reason. Reports show that as many as 70 journalists were killed in 2013. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has called on the authorities of Thailand to allow journalists to import and use body armour. The fact that journalists have to act as if they’re going into war when they’re doing their jobs suggests something is deeply wrong. The fact that they persist in risking their lives for this job means they consider the truth worth the risk – and governments should as well.
4. The Father Of The World Wide Web Warns Of “Tide Of Censorship”
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who launched the web on Christmas Day 1990, has said that
a growing ride of surveillance and censorship threatens the future of democracy and acknowledges that more and more people are using the internet and social media to “expose wrongdoing”
Behind the barrier of anonymity, the internet has become an unofficial platform for criticising everything from Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ video to injustices by US soldiers in the Middle East. These dialogues, ranging from lengthy blog posts to conversations on Tumblr, have opened the gateway to discussing issues overlooked or avoided by the press, and inevitably bringing to light knowledge that might otherwise have been lost.
5. A Lesson from History That Still Resonates Today
To conclude, let’s go back a few centuries to when England still had a system of licensing, only abolished in 1694, whereby no publication was allowed without a government-granted license. It was during this period that John Milton wrote his pamphlet ‘Areopagitica’, in which he argued against government censorship, writing satirically that:
When as debtors and delinquents may walk abroad without a keeper, but unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailor in their title.
Although the pamphlet did not directly end the practice of licensing, it would later be seen as one of the most eloquent defenses of press freedom, and it can still be applied today. Milton believed that individuals were capable of using reason to distinguish right from wrong rather than mindlessly accepting whatever their governments and newspapers told them. In order to exercise this right, Milton said, the individual should have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow man, what he called the open ‘marketplace of ideas’. He claimed that when people argued with each other, the ‘good’ argument always prevailed.
Trust your people, was what Milton was telling the government. Trust them to make up their own minds, instead of pulling the wool over their eyes.