By Fred M’membe
The President of our Republic says he is “a firm believer of press freedom” BUT…
Everybody in our public life claims to believe in press freedom. And the mantra of the moment seems to be; “Of course I believe in a free press, BUT…” And the “buts” are getting bigger.
“But”, they insist, there must be tougher press regulation.
Let me, then, try to enter into the spirit of the age. I too believe in press freedom. I am a man of the Left who cut his journalistic teeth writing for and editing revolutionary publications. As the young Karl Marx described it in his first newspaper articles arguing against Prussian state censorship in the 1840s, a free press was seen as “the embodiment of a people’s faith in itself, the eloquent link that connects the individual with the state and the world, the embodied culture that transforms the material struggles into intellectual struggles “.
BUT I also believe that freedom is inevitably a messy business. It is not a privilege to be handed out only to those who meet your moral standards. The fact that some journalists and publications might choose to misuse and even “abuse” their “vital rights” is no reason to try to limit or restrain press freedom. To seek to sanitise press freedom is to risk killing it. A “bad”, “toxic” and “unethical” press that is free will always be better than a “good”, “clean” and “pure” press that is unfree, if we want to stand a chance of getting close to the truth. But me no “buts” about press freedom, please.
Press freedom is not some fluffy but impractical ideal, like “free love”, to be butted out of existence by those who disapprove of its consequences.
Without the freedom to think, say, write, publish, read, hear, love and hate what we choose, other freedoms would be impossible to imagine. Freedom of the press remains the only hope we have of knowing anything. A free press, in all its forms is the lifeblood of a free society and a vital citizenry.
That is why the suppression of a free press has always been the early hallmark of dictatorship.
So yes, I believe absolutely in the principle of a free press. And yes, it is clear that the exercise of that freedom can cause plenty of trouble for people. Nobody should be naive or complacent about the problems of journalistic standards today. Nor should we try to take a morally neutral view of an irresponsible press.
BUT the far more important point is that freedom of the press is always a messy affair. It means allowing others the freedom to publish things that we may not want to see. As George Orwell put it in his 1945 essay on “The Freedom of the Press”, written as an (ironically unpublished) preface to “Animal Farm”, “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear “.
A free press must be one that is free, not from being judged or subjected to normal criminal law, but from being restrained or punished on the grounds of taste or “decency” or offended feelings or outraged sensibilities. The misuse of our freedom by some is not an excuse for allowing the authorities to misappropriate it.
However you or I might wish it to be, the hard truth is that a free press does not have to conform to our or anybody else’s notions of what is good journalism, or of what is ethical to report, or of what is too offensive to say or show. The principle of free press might look pristine when set down on paper. But in reality that lofty principle can be exploited for low purposes. Press freedom is indeed a muddy and sometimes bloody business.
Press freedom is not something to be rationed out like charity, to only the most “deserving” cases. A right is a right, and it is not limited by any incumbent responsibilities. Of course any good journalist should be prepared to stand up and take responsibility for what they write, and for the methods they use to get that story. But the wish to see responsible journalism cannot be used to trample on the freedom of others.
No matter how imperfect things are, if you got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.