Freedom of Press and Moral/Ethical Codes Aren’t Constant or Universal

by Dr. Aland Mizell

The United Nation General Assembly in December 1993, declared May 3 World Press Freedom Day.  This gives an opportunity to assess the state of press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to recognize those journalists who have been killed in the line of duty. Furthermore, the United Nations has declared that freedom of the press is a basic right (Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights). This year UNESCO is focusing on the need for quality journalism, reporting that is accurate and independent, gender imbalance in the decision-making positions in the media, and digital safety because the digital communications make it difficult for journalist to protect themselves and their sources. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that Congress “shall make no law abridging the freedom of press.” It is very interesting that our founding fathers put a limit on the government because they knew what benefits a free press might bring to the American society. Even the most outspoken advocates of free speech, therefore, recognize that there should be limits on words and images that can cause violence and hate. The problem arises when it comes to working out the limits on where to draw the line. I do believe in the free market of ideas but with responsibility. A person is free to the degree that it does not harm himself or others. John Stuart Mill, a liberal thinker, argues that we should be free to publish a newspaper article saying that corn dealers are starvers of the poor but not free to deliver the same message to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer. An example of speech that caused violence is in the hate-filled and divided society of 1994 Rwanda that encouraged the Hutus to kill almost a million Tutsis. The media has so much power that it can make right seem wrong and wrong seem right, such as former President of Iran Ahmedinejad’s denying the holocaust while referring to freedom of speech. Freedom is asked for in order to promote truth, and truth is needed to set up a great society.

Freedom of the press is needed to ensure public debate, a debate that produces truth for the benefit of all. Free media and freedom of expression are essential pillars of democratic governance because of their role in ensuring accountability and transparency. Free media provides a platform for discussion of diverse topics or issues.  Free media and freedom of opinion and expression are integral to guarantee that citizens can exercise their full democratic rights; free media makes democracy work. Independent journalism helps the government to be more open, more effective, and more transparent. That is why the most corrupt countries and dictators do not permit free and independent media; the media have a crucial role in promoting vigilance, peace, and rule of law. However, generally, media does not really produce the truth that benefits all. Today media is often about securing ratings, forming monopolies, and news media managers’ defaming or praising their subject, knowing that the rest of the staff will follow the lead of pejorative or positive framing, or otherwise they will lose their job because most journalists need to make a living.

At the beginning of this year fundamentalists attacked and killed twelve people in the office of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. We also saw the same response in Garland, Texas, where Pamela Geller, an American blogger and activist, hosted the Muhammad art exhibit and contest. The event consisted of the submission of cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohamed with an award given to the best cartoon. As a result, two extremists tried to interrupt the event but were shot and killed by the police. According to Geller, she was exercising her freedom of speech rights.

It seems to me freedom of press or speech often conflicts with other values, thus threatening the safety of the nation. The lawmakers have difficulty drawing the lines, but true respect for universal values can be achieved only when we exercise our freedoms with respect for the sanctified values of others. There should be some kind of boundaries on freedoms, because when we cross the boundaries of our freedom, then we create anarchy like our world is facing today. We cannot expect people with different cultures to prioritize their values based on our norms and values. If we do that, then we patronize them. Freedom of speech or expression is absolute but exists within an objectively defined context. That context means expressing whatever ideas you want to express as long as you do not violate the rights of others. The perception that the Western media is free to publish anything as a fundamental right without restrictions is absurd, just as it is an illogical idea to publish and disseminate materials that promote drugs, hate, racism, child pornography, slander, or holocaust denial.

We should remember that nowhere in the world does there exist an absolute right to freedom of speech. Every nation and country has its own restrictions and limitations. It is true that words can provoke hostility, but that does not mean it is necessary to respond with violence or to kill anyone who disagrees. We should not let violence become the rule. Democracy does not mean just freedom of speech or free media, but also it requires responsibility. The same is true in that Muslims should see themselves with the same lens. If they do not like or agree with something, they cannot react with violence. Religion should be free, so that anyone can chose whomever he or she wants to worship without being forced or being killed. The problem with the Muslims, in general, is that they should try to understand those who speak negatively against the Prophet Mohamed because those vocal opponents do not believe him and do not know him; therefore, Muslims should not mind it. If they truly believe that Mohamed is the Messenger of Allah and sent by Allah, then it will not degrade the Prophet Mohamed. Even the Quran itself is very clear about this issue (Surah 7:199, 33:48, 25:63) “disregard their hurtful talk. Pay no attention to foolish people, and walk humbly on Earth, and who, when the foolish address them, reply, peace,” but most of the time, they choose violence instead of walking humbly. It is time for Muslims not to play the victim card and expect people to understand them, but they should also try to understand non-Muslims and why they behave the way they do.

Dr. Aland Mizell is President of the MCI and a regular contributor to Mindanao Times. You may email the author at: aland_mizell2@hotmail.com.

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