The eternal struggle

Stabroek News
June 2, 2000

"Democracy and freedom are not natural states. They are ideal situations whose birth and continued life are always under threat". The quotation comes from an article by Mr Oliver Clarke, former President of the Inter American Press Association and Chairman of the Gleaner Company Limited of Jamaica, which deals with the debate over whether the media should be required by law to allow a right of reply. Pointing out that most reputable newspapers do in practice allow errors to be corrected and unfair attacks to be answered Mr Clarke argued that making this mandatory can create the most intractable problems and severely interfere with press freedom. For example, he asked, who has the right to reply, one or several people, how quickly must they exercise it, can the content of the reply be edited by the publisher to remove, for example, defamatory or insulting material, how long can the reply be, can it contain material not directly related to the perceived attack, does it affect other legal remedies and how?

Another contributor, Mr Cushrow Irani, Editor-in-Chief and Managing Director of the Statesman newspaper of Calcutta, India, gives a fascinating example of the abuse of the right by Mr Lee Kuan Yew when in power in Singapore. He was extremely sensitive to any criticism and whenever he saw something that upset him the government would send a rejoinder of unusual length, often running to several thousand words, to refute the criticism. The officials would insist on full publication, alleging censorship if any attempt was made to edit.

These articles appear in a booklet just published by the World Press Freedom Committee under the title "New code words for censorship". It argues that though crude tools of repression still exist in a few countries (shutting down media, killing or arresting or harassing journalists, limiting newsprint supplies) there are now more subtle and sophisticated weapons. These include assigning `responsibilities' to journalists in the interest of peace, development, stability or the right to privacy (sometimes coded expressions for political positions as one contributor puts it), imposing codes of ethics with vague criteria which can easily be used repressively, requiring self-regulation, restricting data access and distribution, mandating `licensing' of journalists, calling for laws to protect them, legislating for `truthful' news (who is to decide what is truthful), cloaking the propaganda of state owned broadcasters as `public broadcasting', claiming that differences in values justify news restrictions, criminalising proceedings against the press, restricting news through insult laws, imposing punitive damages on news media and so on.

Protecting press freedom must be justified ultimately in the broader interests of democracy and maintaining a free and open society. There are always abuses of press freedom and some of the calls for restrictions dealt with in the articles in the booklet are based on genuine perceptions of these abuses. Indeed one sees many abuses in Guyana today in an almost raw state, where media personnel cross the boundaries and seek to become players in the game, jettison traditional professional respect for careful checking of facts and fair and objective reporting, use TV stations or talk shows like assault weapons, disseminating propaganda and spreading mischief. It is easy to draw lessons from this, for example, that journalists should have to be qualified (this is so in parts of Latin America), or that there should be restrictions of one kind or another. Yet experience has shown that the remedy is invariably more damaging than the abuse. The destruction or restriction of a free press is one of the first acts of repressive governments and leads inevitably to other restrictions.

There are and will always be tensions inherent in freedom of speech, of which freedom of the press is only the bestknown example. People say things we disagree with or don't like and which may upset us. What democratic societies seek to find is an acceptable balance, whereby people can publish freely within a liberal legal framework. The best contribution the media can make themselves to deal with these abuses is first to take their professional duties seriously and to report fairly and accurately and without favour to any interest or group. That is their non-negotiable primary task. The second important step that can be taken is to form an association that willcensure errant practitioners who show no respect for the profession. Regrettably, there is no such association functioning today in Guyana.

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