On Media Freedom and Responsibility

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This piece was published on May 4, 2018, in the Nation newspaper, a daily newspaper published nationally in Malawi. It was published under the title “On Media Freedom and Responsibility.” You can read it here: https://mwnation.com/media-freedom-responsibility/

World Press Freedom Day is upon us again. Officially on Friday, May 3, 2018, the theme for this year is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law”. According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in a report entitled World trends in freedom of expression and media development: global report 2017/2018|UNESCO, the current state of media freedom is characterized by thrills and spills (my words) when considered along various dimensions of media freedom. Although there was a year-over-year increase in the number of countries that passed access to information laws from 2011-2016, there was also an increase in Internet shutdowns between 2015 and 2016. Similarly, the report states that there has been a recognition by many countries of Internet universality under the R.O.A.M principles. (R.O.A.M. stands for Rights-based, Open, Accessible, and Multi-stakeholder.)

However, it also shows that countries have continued to use national security concerns and the threat of terrorism as reasons for curbing the dissemination of information. Digital media have come under scrutiny for violations of privacy and the journalistic privilege of protecting sources, according to the report. Indeed, one remembers how under President Barack Obama the United States government was surreptitiously collecting Internet user data under the aegis of national security concerns. Recently, the social media company Facebook was accused of misusing user data. Indeed, it must be noted here that these social media companies continue to offer their platforms for free to users while using their data for marketing purposes, proving to be true the saying: if you are not paying for a product, you are the product.

The report by UNESCO points out that defamation, insult, blasphemy and the so-called lèse-majesté or desacato laws (designed to protect the dignity of authorities and their heraldic emblems), by their very existence, continue to pose a veritable minefield for journalists and even citizens generally. The fact that these laws are typically vague (unclear to a would-be offender) and too broad (restricting too much expression) makes them peculiarly ominous: one could violate the laws without even knowing that he or she was violating them. The report makes clear that though much progress has been made in advancing the reception of information, much more needs to be done to advance the impartation of information by the media once it has been received. Indeed, much more needs to be done to advance free expression generally. But what are the benefits of free expression, anyway?

Going back to luminaries like John Milton in his, seminal, Aeropagitica (1644), John Stuart Mill in On Liberty (1859), Alexander Meiklejohn in Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government (1948), and Thomas Emerson in Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment (1963), various philosophers and scholars have recognized the benefits of expression, not just to the expresser but also to the society. First, free expression allows us to attain the truth by discussing all the facts regarding an issue in the so-called marketplace of ideas. Second, free expression allows the press and citizens to contribute to “the business of governance,” according to Meiklejohn. In the same vein, free expression is a check on government power. Emerson points out that free expression allows societies to change while also maintaining stability because those in opposition also have a voice in the marketplace of ideas. Suppression, on the other hand, drives the opposition into using undemocratic, unstable means to seek change. For instance, the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa initially used nonviolent protests to seek change but reverted to sabotage after it was banned in 1960. Plus, there is the role of free expression in self-fulfillment and self-actualization, such as writing a book or composing a song. Yet, free expression comes with responsibilities.

For the media, these responsibilities should have greater impetus because it is from them that citizens will learn about their government and its policies, and, indeed, those opposed to said government and policies. Although the media, understandably, thrive on covering the conflict between these opposing camps, they must do so objectively and accurately, informing, educating, and, yes, chastising. Free expression allows the media to publish, publish, publish—responsibly.   

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