Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on Freedom and journalism

Liberty and journalism


What journalists should and should not do varies, depending on where
they work, what topics with which they deal, how often they publish, etc.,
and so forth. But there are objective standards of journalism ? what
students are supposed to learn in journalistic ethics courses. It is not
at all subjective or relative how they should pursue their craft.
Journalists ought to be thorough within the space and time restrictions
they face, objective, relevant and so forth.
Most know this implicitly. But at times it is good to reflect on it
explicitly. My point here isn?t to spell out the details, just to make
note of the fact that writing for and editing newspapers, either in the
news or editorial departments, isn?t a matter of ?anything goes.?
When it comes, however, to what rights journalists have, that?s a
different issue. It is a political or public policy question, and the
answer is, ?To do whatever they believe they ought to do, even if they are
wrong.? In other words, even if journalists produce something awful,
disgusting, insulting, offensive, they have the right to do so. Which
means no one may stop them form doing as they choose ? any opposition must
be confined to peaceful means. That is the crux of the freedom of the
press. It applies, of course, also to publishing books, making movies,
drawing cartoons and so forth.
Take the recent example of the Danish cartoonists and their editors, or
the writings of Holocaust denier David Irving. Arguably, both produced
vile stuff, though that again isn?t something I will either defend or
oppose here. But no one is authorized, morally, and no one ought to be
empowered legally, to ban and restrict their drawing or writing what they
choose to draw or write. They are free agents, and whether they do what is
right or wrong, if they aren?t violating the rights of others ? and
drawing or writing something just cannot do this ? they must have the
freedom to proceed.
Some apparent exceptions do apply. Thus writing threats that promise to
violate another?s rights can constitute conspiracy to commit a crime, and
that may be resisted, thwarted, in law. That?s akin to someone who
seriously threatens another with violence, which then justifies a
defensive response ? one need not wait until the promise to do violence
has actually been carried out (even if some legal dramas make it appear
so). Incitement to violence is similar. For a leader of a church or some
other organization to order the believers or members to go out to hurt
someone fits this bill and the law in a free country may step in.
Of course, matters can get complicated, and I am here only dealing with
the basic principles, with just some hints as to where the gray areas lie.
(In all human affairs there are gray areas ? just think of who qualifies
as an adolescent, who as an adult, who as a senior citizen.)
Concerning the recent upheaval about the cartoons published in some
Danish newspapers for Danish readers, ones then taken to some Arab
countries to incite the violence against the Danes, the first thing to
note is that it is not only the Arabs involved who have gone overboard,
past the limits of a civilized response, in such cases. Recently David
Irving was convicted in Austria of claiming that the Holocaust didn?t
happen. He was forced by law to retract his claim. This, though not fully
comparable to the barbarism of burning down a Danish embassy and causing
the death of several innocent people, still amounts to unjustified conduct
in response to what Irving did. He wrote, something no one has to read,
and even those who read it need not have believed what they read. Just as
with the Danish papers? cartoons, which no one needed to sympathize with
or approve of, so it is with Mr. Irving. Yet the man was convicted in a
court. Sure, it wasn?t so drastic but in the final analysis he was
convicted with the threat of violence should he have resisted. And no
justification exists for this, none at all.
When during the Civil War President Lincoln jailed some newspaper
editors for their opposition to his policies, he too acted without
justification, even if the courts sanctioned what he did. When in some
American courts people who are convicted of a violent crime are sentenced
more severely than usual because they hate their victims, because they
have racists or bigoted attitudes toward them, that too is unjustified,
however much their hatred is contemptible.
So it is important that in America and elsewhere in the non-Arab world
people do not get all that righteous about how they would not act as the
angry mobs in the Arab countries did. Many people who live in the West
approve of measures that are not all that different from the conduct of
the Arab mobs. We are a long way from living up fully to the principles of
the First Amendment to the Constitution even in the country where that
document was ratified, let alone elsewhere in the non-Arab world.

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