Rony Koven: In praise of fearless freedom of the press

Politicians and governments who cry the loudest for the need for the press to act responsibly are the very ones who want freedom to act irresponsibly without the press reporting their deeds. No government cries more loudly for the press to be responsible than that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

The demand for the press to be responsible is usually nothing but a demand for self-censorship. No journalist calls for irresponsibility. But the question is: responsible for what, and responsible to whom? To governments? The awful history of the twentieth century showed that irresponsible governments that could act with impunity and no accountability to the press and public have done far more harm to humanity than members of the press could have in their wildest dreams.

We repeatedly have the awful example of Radio des Mille Collines in Rwanda- calling for genocidal massacres, including the killing of innocent women and children, with names and places given over the air to guide the killers – thrown in our faces as the example of ultimate press irresponsibility. But that was not a free, independent press outlet. It was the propaganda organ of a murderous ruling party. Independent and free press outlets may have lapses, but they do not wage systematic hate campaigns. That is the specialty of government-directed propaganda organs.

Much of the loose talk about the need for a responsible press simply fails to make the necessary distinction between a free and independent press and the propaganda organs of parties to conflicts. When it comes to war or conflict, few even try to resist the temptation to throw a monolithic entity known as ‘the media’ all into the same sack – calling for controls and censorship over a generalised category labelled as ‘hate media’.

Nobody ever thought to allege that the Holocaust happened in World War II because of Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels or Julius Streicher and his hate sheet Der Sturmer (The Attacker). We know very well that they were nothing but political instruments of Hitler and Himmler. So, why do we not apply the analogy today? Why do we persist in trying to blame the press for what happens? Could it be that there are conscious or unconscious press-haters amongst us?

In this field, as in so many others, the Anglo-Saxon legal dictum that ‘hard cases make bad law’ also applies. The fact that Radio des Mille Collines, in fact a weapon of war wielded by the Hutu president against the Tutsis, had a legal status as a private station employing professional journalists does not change what it really was. To want to make general international press law on the basis of that uniquely horrifying example is beyond comprehension.

Obviously, the very specific calls for massacres broadcast over Radio des Mille Collines were crimes against humanity and were properly prosecuted as such. It is not because some of the perpetrators happened to be journalists that they should have been prosecuted in their quality as journalists. They were prosecuted as criminals. No special laws on journalism were needed for that.

There have been well-intentioned assertions of the need to act against ‘vigilante journalism’. The leading example that is usually given of such journalism is generally what happened in Kosovo after the Serbian authorities were dislodged from the province. The first instance involved the accusation by the Kosovo newspaper Bota Sot that the new international regime was employing Serbs guilty of atrocities against the Kosovo Albanian population.

The paper singled out a chauffeur hired by the new international authorities. Two weeks later he was killed. The international regime accused the newspaper of having fingered the dead man and of being responsible for his death. I know the argument that printing the man’s picture and address was tantamount to calling for his assassination. But that was an accusation well after the fact.

When the allegations about the chauffeur’s war record were published, the new authorities did nothing, either to protect the man in question, or to investigate the charges that had been made against him. They obviously did not perceive a danger, nor that the allegations might be serious. The international regime was unable or unwilling to assume its responsibilities, and it preferred to accuse a newspaper of irresponsibility.

Yet I find it hard to accept the notion that it was un-newsworthy that a new international regime designed to correct the excesses of the past might be hiring persons involved in those very exactions. Should the newspaper have ignored its information? Should there be no attempt to identify, remove or bring to justice those who commit crimes against human rights?

Have we considered what happens when there is no such effort? Take the example of France, where thousands were shot at after the Liberation for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers. Much of that purging was extra-judicial, and the newly freed country’s new leader, General Charles de Gaulle, called a halt and preached national reconciliation. The result is that French society still periodically tears itself apart over whether the job was properly done after the war. The needed national catharsis did not take place.

That issue now haunts societies all over East and Central Europe. It is not foolhardy to predict that Russia, where there was no de-Bolshevisation, will continue to agonise over the issue for half a century or more, while countries like the Czech Republic, with its ‘lustration’ programme of truth and reconciliation, will be more socially cohesive. But well-meaning would-be press controllers tell us that news outlets which air grievances are ‘hate media’ that should be squelched.

We have international press regimes still sitting on psychologically battered societies telling them that the press must not discuss horrors of the past. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, editors of major press outlets still feel they are being subjected to international censorship. A certain amount of tolerance for excess may indeed be healthy.

Take what happened in Romania, where after the fall of the Ceaucescu regime, secret police funds were used to start up a weekly hate sheet called Romania Mare (Great Romania). It vented hatred against the country’s Hungarian, German, Jewish and Gypsy minorities. At first, it had a circulation of 500,000, the largest in the country. But soon the novelty and shock values wore off, and its circulation dropped to 50,000. It is the same principle that applied to the freeing of pornographic publications in Denmark and in Spain. They started out with huge circulations and eventually fell back to relatively modest ones.

Despite being a cliché, the attractiveness of forbidden fruit is no less a reality.

The press is far more sinned against than sinning. One never hears about the need for codes of conduct for politicians. One only hears politicians threatening the press that they will legislate an imposed ‘responsibility’ if the press does not do the censor’s job for them. So. All the calls for self-regulation, or even more hypocritical, the latest fashion, ‘co-regulation’, are just so many attempts by politicians to work freely in the dark of lack of information for the public.

Seeking the lowest common denominator of content by appealing to the concern we all have to protect children is another approach to impose a form of censorship. The leading club of traditional democracies, the Council of Europe, makes repeated calls against ‘illegal and harmful content’. Illegal content is one thing. But the appeals against so-called ‘harmful content’ are subjective, ill-defined and subject to abuse, especially by the world’s authoritarians eager to find negative examples to justify their censorship. It has been rightly noted that famines don’t occur in countries where the press is free to warn of their coming.They happen when a Stalin or a Mao or a Mengistu can organise them in secret silence.

The Council of Europe, with the best possible intentions, has sometimes given negative examples by adopting rhetoric that can cloak the actions against the press of authoritarians like Lukashenko or Milosevic, right there in Europe, without going farther afield in the distant developing world. The theme of a recent Council of Europe Forum on ‘Responsible Behaviour’ by the media and others came as a surprise. The need for government-defined journalistic ‘responsibility’ was one of the constant themes in the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) debate that nearly destroyed UNESCO. That theme keeps recurring. But warnings that the follies of the NWICO debate should not be repeated are generally met with the remark that that is the past and that the Cold War is over.

For that very reason, the attempts to reinvent crooked wheels to prevent the press from reporting freely must continue to be resisted. The would-be censors have always dreamt that the press would do their jobs for them, that the press itself would refrain from the inconvenient and messy disorderliness of reporting what goes on in dark recesses where some politicians crave the freedom to act as irresponsibly or as corruptly as they can get away with.

If there is one thing that all political parties can so often agree on when things go wrong, it is that it must be the fault of the press. That way, the whole political class can be freed of its responsibilities.

Another approach by governments and political classes to harnessing the press is to assign positive societal tasks for media to carry out. This usually boils down to getting the press to help carry out government or political party agendas. This is done by redefining journalism in terms of some positive adjective. But the practice of journalism needs no justification. As a service to society, journalism is its own justification. It doesn’t need to dress itself up with adjectives.

One of the first lessons in journalism is that normative or judgmental adjectives should be avoided, that the facts should be allowed to describe reality without embellishment. One would think that the same principle would apply to attempts to create such new forms of adjectival journalism as ‘peace journalism’, ‘development journalism’, ‘civic journalism’, etc. What’s wrong with just plain journalism, pure and simple? During the NWICO debate, we were told that we should be practicing ‘development journalism’. That turned out to be a way of describing journalism supportive and uncritical of developing world governments. It was a perfect illustration of how fine-sounding phrases could be used as code words for more or less sophisticated forms of censorship.

We have recently had a similar debate in the United States over something called’ civic journalism.’ It was based on the premise that publics are disaffected from the press because it concentrates on bad news and is thus seen to be too negative. That may in practice simply be another way of saying that news media are doing their job as critics of local and national governments. In the democratic context of US society, the intent of the new’ civic journalism’ approach was undoubtedly well-meaning, and the practical effect perhaps negligible on the watchdog function of the press.

But the major press outlets in mainstream American journalism rejected the idea. Despite the reservations at home, this ‘civic journalism’ approach was presented in the mid-1990s at a major conference in Prague sponsored by the US Information Agency. After the first presentation of this supposedly innovative approach, an experienced Romanian journalist friend sitting behind me leaned over and asked: ‘Who are these people? Are they Communists?’ No, they weren’t Communists, but they hadn’t bothered to ask themselves how the message that the press should work more at promoting the goals and projects of local and national governments might be perceived by journalists from ex-Communist countries.

The problem of those journalists was distancing themselves from the sources of power from which they had just been freed, not learning how to share goals with the authorities. So, when I hear talk of ‘peace journalism’ or the ‘conflict resolution’ or ‘conflict management’ roles of the press, I can’t help but think that that was exactly how Soviet bloc press controllers liked to describe their way of restricting the press. They issued numerous legal and treaty proposals to drum the so-called ‘warmongers’ out of the press corps internationally.

The phrase ‘peace journalism’ would certainly have been eagerly accepted as a code word to cover the Soviet campaign for international censorship. When we start positing that the press has roles or obligations in promoting social cohesion, social solidarity, reducing poverty and so forth, where does it stop? Should we requiie journalists to get degrees in social work?
Society needs news and information if democracy is to work properly. Society needs fora for analysis, discussion and debate of the issues of the day. Society needs practical information like the news of weather, markets and public services. Society also needs the opportunities for distraction provided even by the serious news media

Such traditional functions of the press are more than enough to occupy journalists usefully, without adding in the obligation to pursue good causes that are in fact the realm of politicians, ministers of religion and morality and others for whom advocacy is a way of life – those who want to be able to use the news media as tools.The press must be free to decide for itself what roles it chooses to play. Some outlets may legitimately decide for themselves to embrace and advance good causes. Many do so in practice. But that must be of their own choosing – not an assignment of roles by extra-journalistic forces.

Obliging the press to work for particular goals is an usurpation of its free choice – that is to say, a negation of freedom of the press. It should be unnecessary to say such banal, self-evident things, but well-meaning efforts to assign positive roles to the press are replete with ideas for forcing the press to do various things not of its own choosing. There is nothing new or unusual in that. It is a constant temptation of those who struggle for causes that they are genuinely persuaded are for the good of humanity.

Thus, in the world of humanitarian NGOs, there is a standing resentment against the press because it does not automatically offer up its space and time to further such NGO goals as human rights, good health, and social harmony. And when the press turns an analytical or critical spotlight on those who do pursue such goals, then the temptation in the NGO world to cry ‘Treason!’ is often not resisted. If we call for ‘peace journalism,’ what principle would forbid ‘war journalism’?

Journalists should be left free to report and to air the debates, tensions and contradictions that swirl through any free society. That is when they make their best contribution to social health. Hatreds and frustrations must not be allowed to fester in the dark. Venting them in the open is the best strategy for getting rid of them. That is what plain, simple journalism allows – unlike adjectival journalism, prescribed by quack doctors.

Freedom is unsettling. It defies people’s natural intolerance of instability. Democracy needs apprenticeship. It is far more natural to want to impose the false aesthetics of orderliness. But our history shows us where the calls for order lead us. A free society needs a free press – no matter how disorderly that may seem.

There must also be freedom for the press to get it wrong. That’s what free, open debate in the messy business of democracy is all about. Without a free press, free even to make mistakes- and, yes, to pay for them if and when necessary under legitimate laws of defamation applied by independent courts – without such a free press, a society can only be un-free.

Ronald ‘Rony’ Koven, who passed away on Friday, was the European Representative of the World Press Freedom Committee ( for 34 years. He penned this article as a contribution to a series of conference papers produced by Index on Censorship for the EU NGO Forum in December 2005. Rony began his career as a copy boy at Time Magazine and the New York Times while at Columbia University. After a stint at the Herald Tribune in Paris, he joined The Washington Post, where he was successively the Diplomatic Editor, the Canada correspondent, and the Foreign Editor, returning to Paris in 1977 as the Post’s correspondent in charge of covering Latin Europe and the Maghreb. He reported extensively in the Middle East and Iran, from the start of the Islamic revolution. As European Representative of the WPFC, he was a distinctive and doughty spokesman on press freedom concerns at UNESCO, the UN Human Rights Commission, the Council of Europe, European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he undertook an extensive program of aid to the emerging independent press in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

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