Friday, February 4, 2011

Freedom of expression
is neither free nor faultless

While there has been much international focus this week on the importance of freedom of speech, journalists have been under attack, physically and verbally.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are pillars of an open and inclusive society,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Referring to the uprising in Egypt, she also called on the government there to unblock social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, that had been used to organise protests. The minefield territory of WikiLeaks remained for the moment in the background. For Clinton and many others, WikiLeaks is too free.

Are press freedom and freedom of expression basic human rights that we greatly value or abused luxuries that we take for granted?

In an article in the Guardian newspaper, the veteran British journalist Simon Jenkins contended that journalistic ethics are in a “mess”. He is right of course – and this applies not just to the 'mainstream' media in the UK, but to all types of journalism, including electronic newspapers and blogging, just about everywhere.

Jenkins focused mainly on the alleged hacking of voicemail accounts of prominent people in Britain. This much-publicised scandal remains unresolved. The full ramifications of electronic surveillance technologies and the internet mean that any clear application of the law is impossible, so a new map of ethical territory is needed, Jenkins suggested.

As he put it, there is now “a thoroughly confused boundary between the public and private realms, between openness and secrecy, publicity and privacy, rapacity and trust.”

Journalists should try to obey the law. But which law? “Official secrets law is a shambles. Privacy law is made up on the hoof. Court injunctions are improvised explosive devices.”

Continued Jenkins: “Journalists have claimed 'public interest' in defence of actions that others might consider unethical and lawyers illegal. The reality of the matter is that one person's brave investigation is another's illicit intrusion. Journalists may claim a licence to judge the public interest for themselves, but this requires public trust, which is wearing thin.”

He concluded that the job of the journalist will always be to pursue the story, pushing boundaries when a case for public interest can be proved. “But this pushing will attract public trust only where professional self-regulation can be seen to work, as it works up to a point for doctors and lawyers. For the moment, anarchy rules.”

In Portugal, after a long history of censorship and oppression, the current constitution guarantees free speech and absolute freedom of the press. The law includes the right of journalists to access government documents. Their freedom includes rights of expression and 'creativeness'.

Yet Portugal rates only 40th in the latest world press freedom index drawn up by the international watchdog organisation, Reporters without Borders. That's 40 out of a total list of 178, but Portugal is a long way down from the Netherlands, Ireland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany. The UK ranks 19tth.

Portugal's reputation was tainted last year when the Lisbon-based weekly Sol was fined €1.5 million for defying a court injunction not to publish details from phone conversations recorded in a police surveillance operation.

The report implicated Prime Minister José Sócrates and other people close to him in an alleged attempt by Portugal Telecom to buy a controlling stake in the privately-owned television station TVI. Reporters without Borders expressed outrage and denounced the court rulings as “judicial harassment”.

In April last year, a Portuguese MP snatched audio recorders from two journalists to whom he had granted an interview in the parliamentary library. He stormed out of the room with the recorders in his pocket. Later, he explained his action by claiming that the journalists' questions amounted to “unbearable psychological violence”.

Reporters without Borders said it was “surreal behaviour that one normally sees only in the most authoritarian countries”.

Efforts by some Portuguese politicians since the introduction of the current constitution to bring about more media control, and recent defamation prosecutions that critics say impinge upon freedom of expression, need to be carefully watched by all who value “pillars of an open and inclusive society”.


  1. A clear view through a murky glass....

    No conclusion can be reached at the moment so your last sentence is, sadly, all one can hope for.

    Wikileaks has brought to public attention a range of implausible Government edicts and reactions.

    Anarchy does indeed seem to rule at the moment and I look forward to the press devising a sensible form of self regulation before they are regulated by Government(s) with too heavy a hand, a usually reaction when when there is a mess like the current one.

  2. Good question you pose: Are press freedom and freedom of expression basic human rights that we greatly value or abused luxuries that we take for granted? I like to think I'm in the first camp, but I know there's plenty of abuse and I know plenty of people who take these freedoms for granted. Yes, it is a mess. But thank you for publcising it.