Filtering the news

Stabroek News
May 11, 2000

"Nor is it to the common people less than a reproach; for if we be so jealous over them, as that we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet, what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious and ungrounded people; in such a sick and weak state of faith and discretion, as to be able to take nothing down but through the pipe of a licenser? That this is care or love of them, we cannot pretend, whenas, in those popish places where the laity are most hated and despised, the same strictness is used over them. Wisdom we cannot call it, because it stops but one breach of licence, nor that neither: whereas those corruptions, which it seeks to prevent, break in faster at other doors which cannot be shut". (From the English scholar and poet John Milton's denunciation of censorship in his Areopagitica, a speech to the English Parliament for the liberty of unlicensed printing in l644).

Does the press have special duties in ethnically sensitive societies? Should editors print news, even if true, that can be divisive and inflammatory? Should letters be printed that some may find offensive? Should columnists dabble in ethnic or religious topics in a manner that may offend the faithful?

These are issues that face editors in Guyana and other multi-ethnic societies. Because of this, Mr Gilbert Ahnee, the editor of Le Mauricien in Mauritius, was invited to speak on the topic at the Third Annual Caribbean Media Conference in Georgetown last week. He referred to racial incidents in Mauritius in February l999 arising from the death in police custody of a popular rasta creole singer. It reached the point "where I had to tell my journalists `News value is no more the rule of the game'. There was a dangerous fire to try to help extinguish and some stories, excitingly newsworthy in a different context, had to be withheld".

Many editors who believe in free speech would agree with that decision in principle. Indeed in the troubles here in the early sixties editors would have had to decide whether to publish reports of all the racial murders, given the clear danger of provoking a tit for tat confrontation, leading to mayhem. In an absolute crisis of that kind special considerations clearly apply though one recalls that lurid details of many major incidents in that period of acute ethnic strife were published, unavoidably perhaps. It is virtually impossible, indeed undesirable, to blot out or ignore major incidents, though much depends on how they are reported.

So there would be some degree of consensus on filtering the news in the midst of a virtual racial war where each incident can have a kick on effect. More than that, very special standards of proof are required in such a situation as truth is always the first casualty, rumours inevitably abound, deaths of children are readily invented and so on. Mr Ahnee suggested that perhaps in such cases only incidents actually witnessed by journalists themselves should be reported as it is very hard to find credible and reliable witnesses who are not involved in one way or another.

The difficulty, as always, is where to draw the line, especially outside of such extreme situations. Newspapers also face the problem of whether to publish letters that espouse radical or extreme views. Obviously one always takes into account the laws of libel and sedition, though in our opinion the laws of libel are old fashioned and freer criticism of public officials should be allowed in the public interest. But what about a letter from an activist like Mr Ravi Dev which advocates a federal system, with the implied subtext of some degree of racial separation in the various states? What about a letter that complains of a racial incident, like the beating of Indians in January l998? What about letters that raise issues like the preponderance of one race in particular sectors of the economy, or claim discrimination in various areas? It is very difficult to draw the line in the interests of an assumed stability. Indeed if one excluded all these topics one would be practising widespread censorship in the interest of some supposed greater good and preventing free debate on a wide variety of topics.

Mindful of the Miltonian injunction one has to be careful indeed not to set oneself up as the moral arbiter of the opinions to which the people should be exposed. Obviously one should not publish hate speech or writings that are purely provocative and argue no point.

But it is, as Milton said, to "the common people" a reproach not to trust them to make up their own minds, sift the wheat from the chaff, and come to their own judgment. Again, in the same tract, he said: "And though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licensing and prohibiting, to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter? Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing".

There must be ground rules, for example we decided a long time ago not to publish letters that sought to rehash the violence in the sixties. That is clearly entirely counterproductive. But many of the issues discussed in our columns are important and valid and though sometimes painful and even offensive at first glance, this is often due to our ingrained prejudice against views with which we do not agree and which on further reflection we may realise have some merit. As Judge Learned Hand once said when speaking of the First Amendment to the American constitution which protects freedom of speech, it "presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many that is, and always will be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all".

Dr. Prem Misir, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, who was on the panel with Mr Ahnee argued that publishing letters from the two racial groups pointing fingers at each other was a zero sum game where one person always wins at the other's expense. That, we believe, is a somewhat reductionist and formalistic view that does no justice whatever to the large volume of letters published over the years on a wide variety of topics ranging from amending the Westminster winner-take-all system of government to a consociational model, to the need for fair employment legislation, an ethnic relations commission and many other issues legitimately and properly discussed in multi-ethnic democracies throughout the world.

Regrettably, in an article published in the Caribbean Journal, an ethnic newspaper in New York, sent to us by a reader, Dr Misir has gone further than this and in addition to criticism of the letter columns, to which he has every right, he has suggested that Stabroek News allows space "to anxious opportunists and ethnic extremists, in order to lay the groundwork for ethnic and political instability". That is a surprising and tendentious ascription of motive that we would have thought unworthy of Dr Misir and may well be prompted by the fact that the party to which he is now affiliated is extremely upset at the recent activities of Mr. Dev in the political and union fields.

Free speech is not an unmixed blessing, there are costs to be paid. Editors have to make the call in each case to the best of their judgment and in the light of their beliefs and values. Mistakes will certainly be made. Over the years, we have refused to publish a large number of letters as being inflammatory and unsupported by evidence, some from well known persons. There is no golden rule. But at the end of the day we believe that our letter columns have served a useful purpose, many persons have been able to express their opinions. To embark on widespread censorship would be a dangerous, and even unconstitutional course.