Saturday, May 26, 2007

Freedom of Expression versus Responsible Journalism

UNESCO now as at its creation supports freedom of expression and especially freedom of the press and media. Since the publication of cartoons last year deemed to be blasphemous by many in the Muslim world it is struggling with demands that freedom of expression not be extended to blasphemy. The idea seems to be that theocratic governments can censor media content that they consider to be blasphemous. The verbal formula being used is "responsible journalism".

Not surprisingly, advocates of freedom of expression react to such proposals as they did in the past to proposals for a New World Information Order. You may recall that many countries felt that the international media, in the 70's even more than today dominated by organizations from the North (and West), was providing less than optimal service to development as a result of its focus on information of interest to high income peoples and groups. The proposal for efforts to rectify this perceived injustice involved a call for states in the South (and East) to step in to rectify the situation with state supported media. Those whose pocketbook would be affected reacted as you might expect, charging (not without some justification) that coercive governments would substitute propaganda for news. The controversy was one of the prime causes for the U.S. and Great Britain to withdraw from UNESCO.

I am a strong supporter of freedom of expression. Indeed, I think there is too much censorship even in the United States. But it also seems to me that governments often regulate expression:
  • Pornography is censored. Sometimes that is to prevent exploitation of the models, but sometimes it is to satisfy the religious convictions of the censors.
  • Privacy trumps freedom of the press in some situations, in which the press is not allowed to publish materials about a private individual without permission of that person.
  • Privacy trumps freedom of expression for many social relationships -- lawyer and client, priest and parishioner, doctor and patient.
  • There are now ideas of group privacy gaining currency, as when the Hopi requested return of all Hopi materials from U.S. museum collections on the grounds of maintaining the privacy of their religious beliefs.
  • Libel and slander laws protect people from publication of false claims.
  • Protection against fraudulent use of the media, such as the laws against mail fraud.
  • Political gifts, used to buy air time, are regulated by law in the United States.
  • Hate speech is regulated in Germany, as is certain kinds of historical revisionism in France.
  • The law can enforce certain kinds of agreements to prevent disclosure of information, as when records are sealed for certain civil cases, when records are sealed for convictions of minors, or when contracts are made to withhold information from the public.
  • Indeed, intellectual property rights law includes the concept of "trade secrets" and employees guilty of divulging such secrets can be brought to law.
  • Copyright law protects the way in which ideas are expressed. (Note the difference between the ideas of natural rights of authors versus utilitarian arguments that the state grants temporary rights to enhance the production and dissemination of cultural products.)
  • Governments restrict dissemination of information for security reasons, and one suspects some in government use security as a cover to withhold embarrassing information from the public.
  • Scientists withhold publication of data, even that obtained with public funding, on the basis that they have first right to the publication of their work, but also on the basis that scientific data may by improperly interpreted by others than those who gathered it (since the researchers themselves will best understand the meaning and limitations of the data that they have gathered.)
  • Anti-spam laws, such as the laws allowing people to opt out of receiving phone advertising, which limit commercial phone banks but not those of charities.
  • The Bush administration, even more than most administrations, has held communications within the White House to be confidential, not subject to exposure in the press. Indeed, anyone involved in negotiations is likely to hold that there is a need to hold confidential from the other negotiators information crucial to the negotiation.
The point of this long list is that there might be a right to freedom of expression, but it stops short of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater (if there is no fire). We do limit that which can be expressed in the press and other media in many ways. However, there is always an issue as to whether a specific limitation or the effect of the overall pattern of such limitations overly constrain freedom of speech and expression. Is the benefit real or imaginary, and if real does it justify the cost to freedom.

I am posting this to help think through the issue. Of course one has to support the idea of "responsible journalism". I see no problem in promoting dialog on the characteristics people want to see in journalism and call "responsible". Nor do I see any problem in training journalists in their ethical responsibility to their employers, the public, and the subjects of their journalism. I can also see the problem in censoring the media on the grounds that it offends religious sensibility.

The issue of blasphemy seems a crucial one in what Samual Huntington has termed The Clash of Civilizations. Theocratic states see the prevention of blasphemy as a high political purpose. The United States is a prototypical state built on philosophy of separation of state and church, with freedom of expression as a guarantor of the democratic processes it so values. How can the two cultures agree on what constitutes a suitably responsible journalism?

Perhaps the issue is less real than apparent. U.S. media publish relatively little that U.S. citizens deep blasphemous or anti-religious. Theocracies no doubt find lots of secular information to be of no concern to the censors. Cultures can agree to differ, allowing each to impose its own laws. There is no reason for the U.S. to insist that Germany repeal its laws against hate expression, nor that more liberal societies need demand that the U.S. liberalize its anti-pornographic legislation.

Anyone want to comment?

No comments: