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Module 9: Journalism and the Free Press

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The Role of the Media

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Free Press

Free Press

Free Press

Laws

Laws

The Role of the Media

Free Press in Society

People disagree about the proper role of the news media. Some believe that journalists should support government and supply the public only with information the government deems appropriate.

Some believe the press instead should be the government’s watchdog, searching out and reporting on abuses of power.

Despite these disagreements, there are standards in place, that describe the privileges and responsibilities of a free press in a free society.

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Laws

In the US the United States Supreme Court has made clear that certain types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment (freedom of speech or freedom of the press): publishing details about troop movements in wartime, for example. Other exceptions would include restrictions on obscene speech or on speech that could incite violence or criminal actions.

The news media are almost always subject to laws of general applicability, that is, laws that apply to everyone but that do not single out the press for special obligations or punishment. For example, laws that prohibit the interception of telephone conversations without permission apply to journalists as much as they do to corporations.

Free Press

• A free press, is not subject to undue government control and regulation, including advertisers, and economic or business pressures.

• A free press, will pursue those stories that are important to its readers and viewers. It will challenge assumptions, question authority, and seek truth.

• A free press, is responsible and must never knowingly publish a falsehood.

• The press must be prepared to listen to complaints, to explain its decisions, and to acknowledge and correct mistakes.

In these nations, journalists’ rights often depend upon fulfillment of responsibilities. However, the government’s definition of responsibility may differ greatly from that of the press itself, or even the public.

The Role of the Media

Press Accountability

Who watches the watchdog? Who ensures that the press will be accountable?

In some countries, the answer is the government. Laws, statutes, and codes spell out in detail the conduct required of news organizations.

Codes of Conduct

Codes of Conduct

Ethical Guidelines

Ethical Guidelines

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Ethical Guidelines

It would seem unnecessary for ethical guidelines to address the necessity for accuracy and truth-telling.

But after journalists like Jayson Blair of the New York Times either fabricated or plagiarized the news stories they submitted to their editors, many organizations have revised their ethics guidelines to make clear that neither practice can ever be accepted or condoned by a responsible news organization.

Legal and ethical provisions vary from country to country. Reasonable people-and even journalists themselves disagree on how they should apply in a particular situation and whether they strike the proper balance between competing societal interests.

Codes of Conduct

In some parts of the world, news organizations or individual journalists subscribe to ethical codes of conduct, like that of the National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom. Other countries impose ethical standards as a matter of law.

In the United States, individual news organizations have adopted their own ethical guidelines. Typically, these codes or guidelines set out the institution’s rules governing financial and other conflicts of interest.

For example, an ethical guideline may prohibit a reporter from covering a company for which her spouse works. Or it may forbid a reporter to take part in a protest march, or to display a political sticker on the bumper of his car.

Definition

Definition

Definition

Classified

Classified

Transparency

Transparency

Threats

Threats

The Role of the Media

Privacy and Libel

Is it ever appropriate for a reporter to violate an individual’s privacy? In the United States, the Supreme Court has ruled that it is lawful for the press to publish the name of an individual who has been sexually assaulted.

But is it the right thing to do?

Is it right for a journalist to make fun of a public official or to lampoon a name or image that is sacred to a particular ethnic or religious group? The American Supreme Court ruled that a free society must tolerate even “outrageous” speech in order to guarantee robust public debate and discussion.

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Threats

Some regard the technology that maximizes access to information as a threat to other fundamental rights, such as the right to a private life.

Add to this volatile mix the legions of unidentified bloggers and citizen journalists, operating with gusto but without prior training or certification of any kind. There is no question that they contribute a lively counterpoint to the main¬stream media. But will their tendency to challenge conventions and flout the rules lead to greater attempts to regulate the press?


Transparency

The term “transparency” has become a watch¬word in civil society. Both public and private institutions are exhorted to be more forthcoming about their operations, funding, and governance.

The digitization of data and the ubiquity of the Internet can help. But universal access to information raises new issues about security and privacy, and it compounds the difficulties of protecting proprietary or copyrighted information.


Classified Information

The Supreme Court of the United States has never upheld a government attempt to stop the press from publishing classified information. Fierce debates over whether journalists can be criminally prosecuted under espionage laws arise periodically.

In China, for example, theft of state secrets is a crime regardless of who does it, and the definition of state secrets is an expansive one.

Even assuming that they do not break the law, is it right for journalists to publish classified information, especially when it is claimed that doing so will undermine intelligence efforts to maintain safety and security?

UN Resolution

in March 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning defamation of religions.

And many countries retain, and enforce, statutes that make it a crime to insult or offend the dignity of any person, even a public official. Even if the underlying facts are true.

The Role of the Media

journalistic Standards

National legal systems vary. Civil law nations like Germany and France often adopt statutory schemes that govern the rights, duties, and obligations of journalists.

In nations like the United Kingdom and the United States, a mix of statutes, regulations, and case law, establishes principles that encompass press freedom.

Regardless of the particular legal approach, good journalism flourishes where society respects and enforces the rule of law.

National

National

International

International

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National Standards

National constitutions also guarantee press freedom. For example, Article 25 of the Belgian Constitution, provides that: “The press is free; censorship can never be established; security from authors, publishers or printers cannot be demanded. When the author is known and resident in Belgium, neither the publisher, nor printer, nor distributor can be prosecuted.”

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791, is similarly absolute: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

International Standards

International standards supply guarantees of free expression. But these standards also typically acknowledge certain legitimate grounds for the state’s restriction of free expression. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, pronounces in Article 19 that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.“

The Role of the Media

Censorship

Censorship (government-imposed restraint on freedom of speech and expression), poses the greatest single threat to a free press. Censorship can take many forms:

• Compulsory licensing schemes
• Mandatory pre-publication review
• Imposition of gag orders during the pendency of a legal proceeding
• Extraordinary taxes or fees
• Withdrawal of legal protection or citizenship

The threat of sanctions, such as criminal fines or incarceration, can be as intimidating and crippling to the ability of a news organization to operate as any prior restraint.

Mandates

Mandates

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Mandates

More subtle, but equally problematic, are mandates that impose certain duties or responsibilities on the press. Some autocratic countries and democracies require that the press publish checked facts or “the truth.” For example, Article 20(d) of the Constitution of Spain states, “The rights are recognized and protected…of freely sending or receiving true information by any medium” [emphasis added].

Government desire for accurate reporting is understandable. In former dictatorships, where propaganda and the promulgation of falsehoods were common¬place, the public is eager to learn a variety of facts from many different sources. And it is a basic tenet of ethical journalism that no reporter wants to knowingly disseminate an untruth.

The Role of the Media

Compulsory Licensing

Broadcast

Broadcast

Another mechanism to discourage journalists is the use of compulsory government licensing.

This usually is justified as helping to ensure that only those with appropriate qualifications engage in the profession of journalism.

Government licensing both determines who may be a journalist and circumscribes the parameters of acceptable reporting and commentary. In short, it encourages self-censorship and stifles dissent and debate.

Difficulties

Difficulties

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Difficulties

In some countries with a tradition of state owned public broadcasting, it is difficult, if not impossible, for independent media to secure a place in the broadcast spectrum.

In nations where privately owned commercial media predominate, questions about how much the state may inquire into programming and editorial decisions when reviewing initial license applications or renewals remains a nagging problem.



Broadcast Licensing

By their very nature, broadcast and cable franchises are limited in number and scope within a particular geographical area. Most countries have concluded that some governmental authority will be the “traffic cop” that al¬locates operating frequencies in the broadcast spectrum, or assigns to certain operators the “natural monopoly” of cable or Internet service providers.

Without this type of licensing, anyone might, to use one example, broadcast on the same radio frequency as his neighbor. The result would be complete cacophony and chaos.

Even so, when the state chooses who will be allowed to operate the electronic media, there is a danger of inhibiting the free flow of information.

The Role of the Media

Regulation and the Internet

Right of Reply

Right of Reply

With each new medium of communication, government efforts to control information appear. Some countries, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, have blocked access to Web sites based on their political or cultural content, monitored individuals’ activities on the Internet, and imposed stringent restrictions on Internet service providers.

Even mature democracies, including Australia, France, India, and the United States, have blocked access to or punished publication of online material that they deem to be objectionable.

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Right of Reply

Many countries retain legislation from the era when, in the words of New Yorker magazine contributor A.J. Li¬ebling, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.” Some countries grant an individual an enforceable right of reply to an article concerning her that she deems false, inaccurate, defamatory, or misleading.

The logic of these laws is that because radio and television stations and newspapers are in the hands of a few, the free exchange of ideas requires that they provide those who disagree an opportunity to be heard.
he Internet, which empowers anyone with access to be a publisher, has nevertheless encouraged right-of-reply measures directed at bloggers and other digital journalists.

The Role of the Media

Laws That Discourage

How can journalists determine the truth at any given point? And what is the responsibility of the government, or of the public, to define and interpret the facts?

In a free society, it is up to members of the public, not a governmental entity, to review the facts from a wide variety of sources before deciding what is true.

A problem is created when the government declares what the truth is by the enactment of insult laws. Although the precise language varies, it is invariably both broad and vague, easily manipulated to punish dissent and to silence criticism.

Challenge

Challenge

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Challenge

Punishment may also await those who challenge the accepted wisdom concerning historical incidents.

In Turkey, it is a crime to refer to the mass killings of Armenians during World War I as genocide.

In 2007, the neo-Nazi, Ernst Zündel was imprisoned in Germany after publishing statements denying that the Holocaust occurred, a violation of the German Criminal Code.





The Role of the Media

Balancing Interests

• The most insidious aspect of censorship is that at first glance it can seem justifiable, or reasonable.
Power to stop a news organization from publishing classified material

• Prohibit a journalist from reporting a criminals prior criminal history

• Authority to stop the distribution of a book or film deemed immoral

Why shouldn’t, certain restrictions be upheld?

Restrictions

Restrictions

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Restrictions

Regardless of how a society resolves those hard questions, the danger is that, all too frequently, these seemingly reasonable restrictions are utilized as a means of restricting press freedoms and ultimately to restrict the dissemination of unpopular opinions and ideas.

This is not to suggest that freedom of the press will, or should, inevitably trump other fundamental values. The challenge is to strike a balance between legitimate competing interests. This is not an easy task.

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