Freedom of the press is sometimes taken for granted in many countries that enjoy rights which permit relatively unrestricted freedom of expression. Laws and regulations vary greatly between countries. Some jurisdictions have no freedoms at all and are tightly censored by a central body, whilst others allow just enough variety and artistic mandate to create the appearance of freedom of the press.
In the study I did towards my MA in Journalism, there were many areas which required investigation –freedom of the press being one of them. The following essay captures some points about self and external censorship.
It has been said that freedom of speech is “fundamental to the development of autonomous individuals and to a functioning democratic society,” and that the “media plays an essential role in the ‘speech’ of large, complex societies” (Spence, 2011) and has a right to know the truth.
During the Second World War, Adolf Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, used censorship and outright fabrication of content to manipulate public opinion and inevitably support for his causes (Evans, 2006).
When the full scale of atrocities committed by Nazi Germany was revealed at the end of the World War II, the existing United Nations Charter needed to be amended to address its deficiencies. As a result, in 1948 the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which among others, addressed freedom of thought and the ability to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media.”
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The case of Hitler is a rather extreme one; however, it does reinforce the concept of having a mechanism within society which acts as an independent body that is free to disseminate information of importance to society. The press is the vehicle which presents stories in an objective way so as to provide a balanced report on what is happening (in this case within the government); and thus, acts as an enabler for society to make educated decisions.
At around the same time, whilst living in post-WWII England, George Orwell was trying to publish his new book titled “Animal Farm” – a book which reflects events leading up to and during the Stalin era before World War II.
It was “obvious that there would be great difficulty in getting it published,” Orwell was quoted. One publisher had decided to “consult the Ministry of Information” who strongly advised “against publishing it,” (Orwell, 1947).
In Orwell’s case, the Ministry of Information was very cautious not to “give offence to many people, and particularly to anyone who is a bit touchy, as undoubtedly the Russians are,” (Orwell, 1947). Orwell was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism, particularly so after his experiences with the NKVD (Soviet Union Secret Police).
As a novelist, political writer and journalist, Orwell was a great supporter of freedom of speech and press. Unsurprisingly, following his experiences during the Spanish Civil War, he said “Communism is now a counter-revolutionary force” where the results of Communist policy mean “ceaseless arrests, censored newspapers, prowling hordes of armed police.”
The Ministry of Information used its tremendous influence to ensure that publication of Orwell’s book would be delayed if not completely stopped; thus, avoiding any unnecessary friction between the USSR and the Allies who were still coming to terms with a fragile post-war Europe.
Is this censorship justifiable and was it ethical for the Ministry of Information to interfere like this? Orwell certainly had a right to voice his opinions and be published. However, the government was concerned with the stability of the region. Much of Europe was still in ruins and although freedom of speech was and is important, a stable Europe with stable Allies was probably more vital to the rebuilding of the continent.
Silencing, at least for a while, an author who could cause unnecessary friction was in line with utilitarian principles – to maximize the overall “good” of the greatest number of individuals.
Let us now skip forward by six decades and examine how modern events have shaped and influenced freedom of the press and expression.
Given the prominence of the Wikileak cables, although freedom of the press is a requirement to preserve honesty within governments and organizations; in this case, their indiscriminate release onto the Internet without any redacting or self-censorship may have put countless people in danger. Many of the people named in the cables were third-parties without any involvement in government operations. Their mere mention may have put them in tremendous danger (depending on jurisdiction); at best, it may have only negatively impacted on their professional or personal reputation.
One fact stands out above any others: the cables were written in secret and without the subject’s knowledge. In a normal journalistic interview, the subject is always given the option to go on record or remain anonymous. The cables were of a secret nature only for consumption within diplomatic circles. As such, the cables were never meant for public consumption without some form of censorship; mainly because a standard journalist-source relationship was never forged between the authors of the cables and the actors within the scripts.
The earlier releases of WikiLeaks cables were supported by a number of high-profile media houses. They actively collaborated with WikiLeaks to selectively release “required” information without needlessly or recklessly endangering the lives of innocent people, betray national secrets or disclose anything which could harm the nation(s) as a whole.
Although the codes of ethics vary from country to country, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) code of ethics #3 states that:
Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances.
Clearly, one of the basic ethical pillars was betrayed. Following WikiLeaks’ mass release of the cables, all of reputable media/journalistic organizations sought to distance themselves from the act (and WikiLeaks) immediately. In truth, who could blame them?
Whether this was in line with utilitarian objectives will no doubt be a topic of discussion for quite some time. Nevertheless, the act has considerably weakened WikiLeaks in terms of overall reputation and credibility amongst established media organizations. Furthermore, it’s very unlikely that any new partnerships will emerge in the near future given the lack of self-censorship and WikiLeaks’ inability in maintaining objective credibility.
Perhaps the question ought to be whether WikiLeaks should have continued to involve its partners to redact and control the release of the cables? Surely this would have been seen as a mature and ethical approach to the release of such sensitive information?
Freedom of the press ensures that people have a true unbiased picture of what is really going on in their societies and the world. You could say that the press is a trusted advisor who is able to produce unbiased factual reports, based on which, society can act accordingly.
Similarly, journalists and society should be free to exercise their opinion on any topic provided that they don’t infringe on anyone’s human rights. Journalists – with their ability to present important government and global news – have a right to criticise and enlighten those who can’t quite connect the dots on their own.
Given the sensitivity of some information and topics, it may be necessary to practice self-censorship (as demonstrated by the WikiLeaks case study). The overall impact of releasing information in this reckless manner may ultimately cause more harm than good (if it hasn’t already). At times, it may be necessary for a higher governing body (or power) to step in and censor various aspects of the media – if it is seen in the greater good of society – such as the Orwell example.
Of course, allowing indiscriminate censorship power to the state is fraught with many pitfalls, as demonstrated by the Hitler and Stalin cases.
In a recent article, (Bolt, 2011) states that the News of the World (NOTW) Phone Hacking incident has seemingly given many liberal governments ammunition to hit back at the media. NOTW was not only a demonstration of blatant ethical misconduct; it has dramatically shaken the solid foundation of a reputable news agency and media as a whole.
(Ackland, 2011) had an interesting way of describing this type of misconduct: “the lines in the sand are never clear, particularly when ethics clashes with the public interest.”
He argued that the journalist in question would have been “in the clear if a source had handed him a pile of illegally-obtained transcribed documents.” Perhaps this is a fine example of a legal framework that isn’t keeping up with technological advances?
It is getting to the point where “politicians who rule us openly say they want to use state power to persecute journalists who criticise them,” (Bolt, 2011).
Clearly, this isn’t something we should allow to happen.
[And if you're a CSU student, plagiarism is a punishable offence]
Ackland, R. (2011, September 30). Be careful what you wish for when putting a leash on journalists. Retrieved October 4, 2011, from Sydney Morning Herald: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-when-putting-a-leash-on-journalists-20110929-1kz75.html
Bolt, A. (2011, September 14). Free speech is under threat . Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Herald Sun: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/opinion/free-speech-is-under-threat/story-e6frfifx-1226136206538
Evans, R. J. (2006). The Third Reich in Power, 1933 – 1939: How the Nazis Won Over the Hearts and Minds of a Nation. Oxford: Penguin.
Martin, B. (1998). Defamation law and free speech . Retrieved October 3, 2011, from Brian Martin: http://www.uow.edu.au/~bmartin/dissent/documents/defamation.html
Orwell, G. (1947). The Freedom of the Press: Orwell’s Proposed Preface to ‘Animal Farm’. Retrieved October 10, 2011, from Orwell.ru: http://orwell.ru/library/novels/Animal_Farm/english/efp_go
Spence, E. H. (2011). Media, Markets and Morals. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
Trotsky, L. (1938, August). Freedom of the Press and the Working Class. Retrieved October 4, 2011, from http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/08/press.htm
Wikipeadia.org. (n.d.). Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved October 7, 2011, from Wikipedia.org: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Declaration_of_Human_Rights