(11c) Because press freedom is important, it needs to accept some limitations.
This article is a continuing of my previous publication. Here I will discuss (1) why we need press freedom (it informs and thus is part of the democracy), (2) when should the press publish about things people want to hide from others (to expose illegal activities) and (3) what measures can be taken to prevent the media oversteps invisible but well-known lines so that the public continue to have respect for the media (via control and the threat of punishment).
Freedom of the Press is importantFirst of all, like many other people, I like reading newspapers and scientific magazines, much more than reading books (also because I have not much time reading books, therefore I read reviews and commentaries so I know something about newly published books). They inform me about changes in society and the forces that try to stop these changes. I prefer reading serious newspapers such as "The Guardian" or the BBC-website because they allow the publication of different voices on subjects so I can understand why people may have another opinion than me and it allows me to adjust my own opinion if necessary. It also gives me the power to make some predictions about the future, certainly when I try to understand why persons act in a certain way to a situation (although that doesn't mean I have to agree with their actions).
E.g. everyone who follows the international news could have predicted the recent violence in the Muslim world (journalists who are surprised about the violence should not be called journalists). Indeed, religious people and institutions who were very influential in the past loose their grip and even feel ridiculed for their beliefs, therefore many become more extreme and think they have to defend their god while ridicule other people's belief and opinions. In this way they hope they can gain more power. This is not only happening in the Muslim world, but also in the West, i.e. in America where the Tea Party can't say a single sentence without mentioning God. And it was in America where christian fundamentalists made the movie in the hope it would upset the Muslim world. And it did. Unfortunately innocent people where killed. Thus, to understand this problem we have to understand the arrogance from some people toward others and the reaction against the arrogance.
Another example why reading open minded newspapers and history books allows the ability to understand why the world may move in a certain direction during the financial crisis. Many people loose their job and are angry because they are ridiculed as lazy. Many people with jobs agree that benefits should be reduced to save our economy until they loose their job and they become angry they have difficulties surviving. Thus, as the gap between ordinary and wealthy people become larger, the system becomes unstable and this people become more extreme. People who only read journals that tell them people in the West are earning much more than those in poor countries and who only know rich people (such as Mrs Lagarde (boss of the IMF)) will not understand poverty exist in Western countries because the price of basic things is higher than in poor countries. Those people should not only read journals that acknowledge their own opinions but also read opinions different from their own. If those wealthy people would understand what it means to struggle then they would prevent too much inequality, if only for themselves (although I think they know, that is why they avoid contact with ordinary people).
Thus, press freedom is important if only for me to be able to read newspapers and know more than only my way of life and thus press freedom should be defended. That is on the condition that the media behaves well and does its duty such as informing us correctly about changes in societies such as changes in the law. But also because in societies there will always be liars and corrupt people and it is the duty of the media to report on them. The Watergate scandal is a good example: although the press reported about something President Nixon wanted to keep secret (i.e. his administration spied on his Democratic opponents) it was good the press published about the illegal activities of their President. Therefore, a crime was exposed and could be stopped; the president even had to resign. And, no, press freedom doesn't mean to be able to publish without restrictions.
When should the media expose someones privacy?In contrast to my previous article where I defended the right of privacy, not all private matters should be kept private. The media should not expose people who go to (nude) beaches or saunas or that people are divorced or had an abortion because nowadays many people do these things and thus it is no news (although they should inform us these things exist). Equally, they should not expose people who go to (sex) parties because these are all private matters (maybe the partners agreed on this when one of them doesn't like sex and doesn't want the other is unhappy). Because the knowledge of people their sex life (and related subjects) by people who disapprove those persons (sex) life is still a very powerful tool to destroy people. But, when certain people participating in those parties or having an abortion condemn that in public and want to forbid those because they want to come over as decent in the eyes of the public, than the media should expose them as liars and when necessary destroy their career. Or, when people participate actively (thus with knowledge) in illegal activities than it is the duty of the press to report on this but with respect for the victims.
The same applies for gay people: they should be able to live the life they prefer to live and the media should not expose their sexuality. Indeed, many media that publish about gay people are in fact homophobic that want to destroy the careers of gay people. But, when gay people (as some do) not only hide their sexuality but speak in public against equal rights for all people including gay people, than the media should expose that those persons are gay because in doing so they expose they are liars and probably will also lie and cheat in other circumstances. These liars also damage the credibility of other gay people because by speaking against their own sexuality they give the impression being gay is bad. If these gay people want to become politicians, they can join a political party that respects them and allows them a political career as a gay person. Of course it is more difficult when they do not agree with the other policies of that party. This is different from gay people who are not open about their sexuality but who are in favour of equal rights for all people. Why should people always discuss their sex life in public? Maybe they wait for the right moment to talk about it. Or maybe the person still has to accept his/her sexuality and feels insecure. Or maybe openness may endanger their life or limit their career (e.g. in the past, gay teachers had to hide their sexuality because the laws of societies were wrong and gay teachers would loose their job even when they were very good teachers; they lived continuously in fear of being exposed and others could blackmail them (something that is illegal)). Often tabloids out gay people to ridicule and destroy them while serious newspapers show the wrongs of society and will proof with stories that, in my example, gay people can be good teachers.
Thus, press freedom is important to expose wrongs in societies and to help change societies for the better but it should not be used to destroy (careers of) people (who do their job correctly) because then it is a force of evil. In the latter case people need to be protected from the press (i.e. via privacy laws) while in the first case people will celebrate press freedom as it liberates them. Of course, each person has another definition of press freedom; therefore people should be able to go to an independent organisation to defend their privacy whenever they think the media exposed their private life. And judges should look objectively to each individual case and not generalise towards a certain population.
Rules: media should behave again as they did in the past, i.e. with respect for others privacyThe best thing is self-regulation: people who publish should ask themselves following question before publishing something: "(1) Would I like it when other people publish this about me and (2) is it in the interest of the public?" (the latter is different for each paper as each have their public with its own expectations). This can only work when people accept they have to work within generally accepted limits (although these can change over time). Press organisations may also think of having an internal ethical committee to check whether their articles are in the general interest and don't break privacy rules. People in these committees would have a heavy burden because a misjudgment can result in a heavy fine for the company, journalists or photographers.
This needs a basic set of rules and laws (although not too detailed so one can listen to arguments and allow some freedom for each individual case or allow changes in attitude). If there are no rules, how can people know the limits while if they are too strict how to report on new situations? There should be an acceptance of the following:
(1) Public means that someone publishes something that can be seen by everyone, even when done by mistake (although it should be possible to correct mistakes but ones the public message has been seen by others they know the opinion of the person) or people do things in a public area such as during festivals and therefore other people can refer to it.
(2) Private are those publications that are marked private, and even when they are visible for a certain group of people, they can't be used or mentioned by the general public as the author did not intend this, or people do things in such a way one understand they like their privacy (e.g. one relaxes on a beach). To avoid mistakes and thus that someone publishes something private that everyone can see, it should be standard on the internet that nothing is public until the person gives the order to make it visible for a selected group or worldwide. Now often people have to search for a button that reduces the visibility of the post. It is more difficult when anonymous pictures are taken on public streets and published as face-recognition may name the person; still, it is different when for instance a picture of a terrace with customers is shot versus a picture of a specific person on a terrace for which permission should be asked (otherwise we can't take any photos anymore).
However, when people (either the police, the press or general public) notice someone breaks laws or behaves badly, it is the duty to report this so that the person who or organisation that breaks laws can be stopped and if necessary punished. The press knows how to report on crimes as they have a long history of exposing criminal activities. This is also the reason why press laws should not be too strict as otherwise each and every exception about reporting on others should be listed to prevent that publishing about crime becomes a criminal activity in itself. Of course, the media can't simply break into people's houses, mobiles or Internet; this is something for the police after judges give them the authority to do so (in general, privacy needs to be protected against invasion). The press needs to use other ways to gather information about illegal activities, e.g. interview people involved (e.g. during the Watergate scandal the media got its information from an insider; therefore, it is important that whistleblowers receive protection when they uncover illegal activities because it is in the interest of societies but, after exposure the criminal justice system should continue to investigate) although I can accept that in exceptional situations in normal situations unacceptable activities have to be performed to uncover criminal activities.
Also ordinary people should be able to record criminal activities to give evidence to the police. E.g. early 21th century, an animal rights group in Belgium (i.e. Gaia) filmed the abuse of animals at an animal market. The judge ruled the people mistreating the animals couldn't be prosecuted because the evidence was not filmed by the police and thus the privacy of the people was violated because they didn't give their permission to be filmed, even when the videos were made at a public place. Therefore, in effect the judge granted the farmers the right to continue to mistreat animals and carry out an offence unless police would investigate the scene. Similarly, what if a murder is filmed by the public, does the public then have to asked the permission of the murderer and victim before they can go to the police or otherwise the evidence will be refused?
There should be press committees (they already exist but sometimes they don't function properly) that control the media and give advice when asked about the correct use of information. ALL sections of society should be involved as everyone comes in contact with aspects of the media. The members should be elected and only be allowed to be in these commissions for a certain period, although not all should be replaced at the same time (e.g. every other year a certain number of the people are replaced while they can only be maximum eight years in the function). This way there will always be some people with experience while there will be a continuous inflow of new people and this will prevent a culture of everyone knows the others. Maybe people should be allowed to be elected for a second period after an absence of for instance 10 years. Half of these commissions should be professionals (e.g. journalists, photographers, publishers, ...) as they are directly involved, can explain why certain things are done in a certain way and as they have a large impact on society; they know best their profession.
But also other sections of society should be involved: politicians as they are the people that make and change laws and thus they have to know how the media works to be able to adjust the laws when needed. Also, politicians are one of the main targets of the media. Lawyers, judges and police as they have to enforce the correct use of the rules and laws by everyone; they too are often mentioned in the media. Finally, members of the general public (e.g. celebrities but also ordinary people with an interest in the media) as they can be mentioned in the press but also because they too publish (e.g. on blogs or social media). When all sections of society are involved there will be a better understanding of what is acceptable or not for the society. But censorship on what can be published (this is different from no protection of privacy and thus no privacy) should be prevented as people have the freedom to buy or not to buy magazines but it can be determined how they can be sold (e.g. porn magazines out of the sight of children). These commissions should be able to force some punishment upon those who break the rules and laws, e.g. force them to publish an apology or "right of answer", or give fines for certain serious offences.
Also an international organisation should exist that enforces basic rules about openness on each society, i.e. press freedom. Otherwise some societies will prevent free press and thus this organisation can define what is press freedom while individual societies can have specific rules on e.g. how to present information.
Big offenders should be judged in criminal courts that involve judges and juries (thus again involving specialists and ordinary members of society). There should be the possibility to hand out heavy sentences when large offences are made, including prison sentences. Also, if people do not agree with decisions made by press commissions they should be able to go to court for the ruling by a lawyer; than the laws and rules should be interpreted as they stand so that there can't be any discussion afterwards. If changes to the rules are needed, the press committees can do so while changes to laws should go through Parliament as this has a much larger impact on a society and thus should be discussed in a larger setting.
Thus, people should first complain by press commissions because they are the experts and this will prevent too many complains in criminal courts that causes delay in procedures. However, there should always be the possibility to bring disputes in front of a judge and jury. Everyone should be able to file a complain, therefore it should cost every person in accordance to their income (certain percentage) so that not only the rich can complain. A smaller fee should be paid to bring a complain before the press commission so people will go first via them while if people do not agree they can still go to courts. But everyone should be able to file a complain. Of course, the jurisdiction should also be able to prosecute media and people whenever they think laws are broken.
Hate websites and press freedomShould hate websites be forbidden because it would reduce the press freedom for some? This is more difficult. For too long the absolute right of freedom of expression has been tolerated towards people who spread hate and call for the suppression or even killing of others and thus I would argue that these websites should be closed and the people running those websites should be prosecuted or re-educated.
However, others say that allowing these individuals to publish their hate allow Intelligent Agencies to follow their actions and know what they may do while if the websites are closed the people will go underground making it more difficult to know what they are planning. But when these websites can continue to exist, they can continue to spread hate messages and thus influence vulnerable people. Thus, I think I favour the closing of hate websites and the people should be re-educated so they no longer spread hate but accept others. Because, I think press freedom is not a right when people do not respect that other people also have the right to live the life they choose to live.
In conclusion, self-regulation would be the best when each and every person would only think about the general interest but there will also be people who put their own interest before others and thus intervention from outside is needed to prevent that the media becomes corrupted. If people working for the media know they can be punished than they are more likely to behave better, even when this is only to prevent others intervene in their company.
Note 1: People with ideas to improve above ideas can always inform about errors made by me;
Note 2: First published on 18/09/2012 but editorial changes on 16/02/2020