03 May 2010

Thoughts on Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the Press is a favourite theme in television drama and feature films -- most often, citing the American Bill of Rights rather than the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms but we frequently take it for granted in North America. The only time most of us think about Freedom of the Press is when it is being squashed (think of how often China, Iran, or North Korea shows up in the headlines for crushing free speech or imprisoning journalists).

I don't know whether it was my upbringing or 25 years of working in libraries or just wanting to be assured of some protection for what I might write but for whatever reason, it's usually not far from my mind. It might even be from my early exposure to being censored -- in grade 6 I was part of the editorial team for the school paper and one issue contained a section ("seen in passing" I think) that would barely pass for the tamest version of Overheard in x today but which our principal felt was gossip and possibly libelous. He was not amused and charged us with actually cutting the section out of every copy that had been run off on the Gestetner by our teacher the evening before. Of course that meant that every issue sold for that run -- another interesting lesson for an 11 year old to learn. (As an adult, I wonder whether our teacher was disciplined for not talking to us about it or just editing the content before printing.)

Most recently, I've been watching the case against Jason Chen (who reported on the Apple prototype that was bought by Gizmodo/Gawker Media and whose home was later raided). I firmly believe that, while criminal charges might be appropriate, they should be targeting the person who signed the cheque and bought the lost/stolen prototype and/or the engineer who let it get away rather than the reporter doing his job.

On the global scene, Reporters Without Borders tracks infractions* and reports on the state of press freedom each year. In 2009, Canada registers at 19th of 175 nations (way down from 7th in 2002) but doesn't come close to the big offenders.

May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day, as declared by the UN, a day to "celebrate the fundamental principles of press and media freedom that are articulated in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Go read (or watch) some award-winning journalism and ponder what we stand to lose:

Wanna know more about Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression? Check out these links:
Also, here's more about the Apple vs. Gizmodo issue just 'cause it's under my skin:

*From the Reporters Without Borders press release on the survey used to rank countries, "It includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). And it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations.
It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score.


Z├ęzette said...

Huh. We're ahead of you guys. I'm surprised, actually. I bet that'll change once we get our China-style national internet censorship device plugged in.

Ted Godwin said...

I find it difficult to wrap my head around your moral absolutes. A sneak-peek at upcoming features of a consumer product is somehow the moral equivalent of exposing corporate crime?

Freedom of the press is to protect the publication of news in the public interest. It is to prevent tyranny by an elite by educating the electorate. It is to protect those who seek out and find the truth.

I fail to see how an early look at trade secrets meets any standard of journalistic ethics or moral responsibility. Mr. Chen is not Mr Nader. Finding out the new iPhone can do X is not the same as finding out that a new Toyota will kill you if X happens.

Cheryl said...

Ted, for starters, my moral compass is about as reliable as Jack Sparrow's. That said, I do see free speech and freedom of the press as absolutes; I feel like it's all or nothing because once you start saying it's not OK in one case but OK in another, the doors start closing. My issue with the Chen case is that as a reporter he is being compelled through a criminal investigation to divulge his source and that, to me, is not OK regardless of any other detail in the case.

Star said...

I may forevermore refer to you as jack Sparrow. :). That said , I agree that we cannot pick and choose when free speech begins and ends. I think perhaps your principal was offering a lesson in responsible journalism.