“I tell you, in my opinion, the cornerstone of democracy is free press – that’s the cornerstone” – Milos Freeman
“When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered” – Christopher Dodd
“A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad” – Albert Camus
In June 2014, three Al Jazeera journalists were given seven-year prison sentences on terrorism related charges. They were convicted of spreading false news and collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood after the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. This case has become a major controversy for the Egyptian government and another dent on the freedom of expression.
Freedom of the press or freedom of the media is the freedom of communication and expression through mediums including various electronic media and published materials. The United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.
This current tide involving many governments clamping down on freedom of expression would prevent many journalists from reporting objectively on matters. A free press is very important in every society. Imagine what the world would be if one couldn’t freely report on a tsunami going on in a particular nation. How would individuals planning a vacation to the country know about the disaster going on there?
History is filled with cases of outright abuse of the freedom of expression, not just involving journalists but also ordinary citizens. Anyone found to oppose the regime is whisked away to a dungeon where the individual languishes forever. Times have changed and with the advent of social media, ordinary citizens have made it easier for information to be dispensed at a quicker rate. Anyone that has access to the internet could stay anywhere and post any information and people at different places get to read about it. The number of bloggers who dedicate their time to doling out timely information has also improved.
This is a welcome development but to most ruthless regimes, this trend wouldn’t have any place in their system. Bloggers are arrested in Ethiopia, Saudi authorities flog them in the open, Iran jails social commentators, the Turkish government dismisses journalists who fail to toe their owners official lines, citizen journalists are harassed by Brazilian police for reporting anti-government protests, and the list goes on and on. Sometime last year in Nigeria, it was alleged that the governor of a state directed the police to arrest a citizen for posting ‘abusive’ comments (directed at the governor) on facebook. What a tragedy!
It is not enough to establish more laws (in theory) protecting the freedom of expression; it is pertinent to practically apply these laws. And it seems most regimes all over the world are getting wiser. They have perfected other means of getting the individuals to censor themselves rather than making laws to censor the media directly. In some countries, laws that are meant to protect the national security and protect citizens from terrorism are used to prevent individuals from reporting objectively and fairly. This causes fear amongst bloggers, journalists and individuals and most are afraid to speak out without bias. These cruel regimes wouldn’t arrest people for posting things online; rather, the government arrests these people on spurious charges such as gun toting and drug possession. Activities as simple as organizing a peaceful protest are deemed offensive by such regimes. People are scared to speak freely in these nations.
According to Herbert Lionel Matthews, former New York Times reporter and editorialist, a censored press has a demoralizing effect; the government only hears its own voice, it knows that it hears its own voice yet it persists in the delusion that it hears the voice of the people and in turn, demands of the people that they should persist in this delusion.
It is important for individuals, journalists and media houses to collectively take a stand on this issue. Limitations to the freedom of expression in one country affect such freedoms worldwide. If nothing is done, who knows what the future holds for us. Without information, people wouldn’t know what is going on in a particular place at a certain time. People should be free to share information. It is also important that while sharing such information, individuals (especially social commentators) should know the limits to such freedoms and cease to abuse it. Capisce!