Freedom of the Press is a fundamental right in a democracy. Many have fought for and even died for it. Sadly, many continue to die for the simple right to express their viewpoint. In 1998 a total of 50 journalists were killed around the world for writing or speaking their mind. According to the Vienna-based journalists' rights organization, the International Press Institute, in the first eight months of this the year the number has already reached 39. So far this year, 127 have been jailed or detained for writing or broadcasting news in 29 countries. This is up from 118 in all of 1998. And to think that these are only the cases that made it into the news.
With the well publicized recent banning of media outlets in Sudan and Iran and detentions and/or convictions in Malaysia, Israeli occupied South Lebanon as well as territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority among others, the picture does not appear to be getting any better.
Not only have lives been lost, but also wars have been fought and laws written and rewritten on account of this right. In the course of history, the pendulum has swung back and forth from freedom to suppression and continues to do so to this day. In fact, according to a survey released last year by Freedom House, more than eighty percent of the world's population live in countries that lack in press freedom. A right -- to a great extent -- that we in the West take for granted is denied to many. Mind you, even the Western world does not enjoy ideal freedom of the press as those who own and advertise control what and how something is covered. But that's another week, another column.
Free speech has been an issue since the beginning of time. Socrates wrote about its virtues. Some saw it as a privilege while others saw it as a problem to be restricted. Eventually it made its way into the various bills of rights, constitutions and even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it still remains a controversial issue. Some call for restrictions and guidelines for freedom of the press while others advocate a greater level of freedom. Interestingly, nobody accept anarchists would advocate complete freedom. The proponents of greater freedom argue that truth will ultimately prevail in the free exchange of ideas. This raises three questions. Whose truth? How do we account for unequal access to the means necessary to take advantage of press freedom? And do we ignore the consequences -- on children and society -- of unrestrained free speech?
Rather than attracting answers, these questions are bound to raise even more questions. Indeed, American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Homes, Jr. strongly advocated for free speech in a number of his rulings over half a century ago. Yet, in one of these rulings he wrote, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic." In essence the controversy over press freedom revolves around the question of where do we draw the line? Well, according to Holmes, "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." Obviously, such a test will produce different results in different settings when looked at through lenses tinted by varying worldviews.
For instance, should freedom of the press be used to shield and protect immoral speech, pornography or threats to the security of the nation or society? I would think not. But others may disagree. Freedom House, for instance, notes that there were attacks on press freedom even in the U.S. and Canada because there were attempts to restrict pornography on the Internet. In Canada, the British Columbia Supreme Court upheld a sick man's "right" to have access to child pornography. Such unrestrained freedom is not healthy for the individual or society and should be opposed. At the same time freedom of the press, so long as it is within certain bounds, must be respected. A right divorced from responsibility will only lead to the right eroding away as it interferes with the rights of others. The media preoccupation with sensationalism, scandals, denunciation and promotion of views on the outer limits may help sell papers but also leads to a damaged reputation.
Though we may not like it or agree with it, so long as free speech is construed as a license to attack core values of society and journalists portray themselves as infallible and beyond reproach, the pendulum will continue to swing toward repression. Yet, it must be noted that all the blame does not sit squarely within the journalists' court. Authoritarian leaders and paranoid segments of society who are afraid of challenge or to have any views other than their own publicized need to learn that freedom of the press is not "free speech for me, but not for you." Healthy debate and criticism is vital for a responsible government but again this cannot be at the expense of accountability and responsibility on the part of journalists as well.
Freedom of the press is a basic right and must not be denied; but like all other acts in our modern democracies there is a need to have laws to regulate its use. Dissenting opinions must be challenged at the intellectual level not with the bullet or the dark cell. Enough messengers have been killed and persecuted for the mere sting of their message.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs