Why we must maintain sanctity of free speech and ethics in Journalism

Moin Qazi

By Moin Qazi

New Delhi: Free speech or the freedom of expression is the modern civilization’s most precious gift to human society. Free-speech advocates typically claim that the value of unfettered expression outweighs any harm it might cause, offering assurances that any such harm will be minimal.

Pluralism

The key to the invention of free speech was the recognition of pluralism—that, in any human population, there will be people with irreconcilably different understandings of the truth.

While free speech is not absolute in most societies, the qualifying restrictions are only those which constrict speech which may be deleterious to the social good.

Repressing speech has costs, but so does allowing it.

A mature way to judge the system would be to look at both sides of the ledger. Free speech can’t be reaffirmed by drowning out its opponents. It has to be defended as, in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “an experiment as all life is an experiment.”

Speech is a tool of change and revolution and a free press is the best public medium of expression of free speech.

Healthy and vibrant democracy

A free press is the foundation of a healthy and vibrant democracy. Transparency and vigilance, which are hallmarks of an independent press, are critical to democracy. They also serve as powerful weapons against forces, ranging from corruption to bad business practices that undermine economic prosperity.

The vision of better, stronger, and more robust economies is not possible without high-quality journalism.

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity and journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world.

We have all benefited from the work of persistent journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line in their pursuit of truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power and relentlessly pursue to disseminate the truth.

It is however tragic that press freedom and independence, a staple ingredient of all great democracies worldwide, is declining.

Newspapers every morning have pages and pages of advertorial content, and newspaper editors know, as do we all, that it becomes impossible to distinguish between paid news and actual, unbiased news.

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world, however, has changed, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered. Whatever its position or character, a press should have a soul of its own.

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In the modern journalistic paradigm, the news has become not what the facts are, but what men wish to see.

Human beings are poor witnesses, easily misled by a personal bias, profoundly influenced by their social environment. As products of their society, journalists are no exceptions

Perhaps the most vulnerable institution is the free press, and the most disposable people are journalists.

If they’re doing their job right, they can have friends in powerful places. Around the world, new systems of control are taking hold. They are stifling the global conversation and impeding the development of policies and solutions based on an informed understanding of the local realities.

We are seeing new abuses that were unimaginable earlier.

Advertorial content

Newspapers every morning have pages and pages of advertorial content, and newspaper editors know, as do we all, that it becomes impossible to distinguish between paid news and actual, unbiased news.

Regulations for these malpractices have yet to be put in place.

Paid news is a fraud on the public and, when it is passed off as the real thing, must be regulated.

One good development in modern times has been technology. It has made it more and more difficult for a small group to effectively control the means of communication. This has also been aided by the proliferation of social media.

Yet, despite the safeguards for freedom of expression, several societies continue to use diabolic methods for chilling free speech and free press.

For the media to be credible, it has to take responsibility for getting its facts right.

That means digging deep, talking to a range of people to get the different sides of the story, and checking their facts rigorously. It should not hesitate to root out and expose lies, hypocrisy, and corruption, but has to be sure of its facts before doing so.

Walter Lippmann, who would become the most influential champion of journalistic objectivity, believed in the reimagination of journalism as a kind of scientific inquiry, subject to the disciplines of testing and verification.

Protecting the freedom of the press is a dynamic area of law.

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Shifting trends and the advancement in communication technology require a re-examination of the underlying principle and its application in new contexts. The constant evolution requires deep thinking and the introduction of proper checks and balances. It may at times be difficult to strike the right balance. Freedom of the press, like several other precious freedoms, must be placed outside the reach of political exigency.

Walter Lippmann, who would become the most influential champion of journalistic objectivity, believed in the reimagination of journalism as a kind of scientific inquiry, subject to the disciplines of testing and verification. In his book, “Liberty and the News,” Lippman argues that good reporting must be based on the “exercise of the highest scientific virtues”. According to him, the best reporters are not “slick persons who scoop the news, but the patient and fearless men of science who have laboured to see what the world really is.”

Journalists will need to rededicate themselves to the mission that made journalism the noble calling of so many great women and men.

Journalists will need to rededicate themselves to the mission that made journalism the noble calling of so many great women and men. Their commitment to the values of liberty and freedom has earned the press the status of the Fourth Estate alongside the other three custodians of free speech and democracy.

It is time journalists reaffirmed their commitment to the credo of Joseph Pulitzer III (1913-1993), the founder of the world’s gold standard in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize: ‘We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times”.

(Moin Qazi is a development professional. Views are personal.)

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