Freedom of expression and information – ethical issues and responsible journalism

Full text of Datuk Chamil Wariya’s talk, given at the UNESCO Workshop for Youth: Freedom of Expression and Information, organized by International Relations Division, Department of Information Malaysia on 30th November 2011 at The Royale Chulan, Jalan Conlay, Kuala Lumpur.

Introduction

Thank you for asking me to give this talk. At my liberty, I have changed the topic given to me slightly. It now reads Freedom of  Expression and Information – ethical issues and responsible journalism. As a former journalist, it is only appropriate for me to relate some of my past experiences as a media practioner with regard to this important issue of freedom of expression and information and its implication to journalism, especially responsible journalism.

I am told that the workshop is for young people.I would like to congratulate the Department of Information Malaysia for taking the initiative to organize this program especially now we are living in the digital era. Being youths, I’m sure that you all have some form of idealism, and that concept of freedom is cherished and valued. Having ideals is indeed something we all aim for. When we’re young we all yearn for freedom, but it continues to become an elusive thing. However that doesn’t mean that we need not try to aim for it.

But in the real world, nothing is perfect. We all hear or read that in the developed nations, they have more freedom, and that includes  the media. Actually the reality is somewhat more complicated and sometimes misleading. Many of you no doubt would compare Malaysia with the West, perhaps the United States, with respect to freedom of the Press.

Freedom of the press and expression is part of a universal declaration of freedom of expression, which is enshrined in a United Nations declaration and which all member nations are obliged to respect. This is an ideal and noble idea but as later you will find out even in the most liberal of nations, this declaration is not complied with. It is this freedom of expression that we discuss and which I will explain further.

Freedom of expression – an overview

What is freedom of expression?  According to article 19  the United Nations Declaration Of Human Rights, it is:

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 and regardless of frontiers.

For the purpose of comparison perhaps one could mention the First Amendment to the American Constitution which categorically provides, inter alia, that the

 “Congress shall make no law ……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”.

This has always been regarded as fundamental by the American constitutional lawyers.

The constitution of the Federation Of Malaysia does not define these rights, but states:

“Every citizen has the right to freedom and speech and expression.”… but also adds “ Parliament may by law impose….on the rights….such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the federation or part thereof , friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence”. 

Simply put, these means that freedom of expression is tempered by the security of the nation and the right of citizens to protect themselves from being defamed or libeled.

Even in the United Kingdom, this definition of freedom of expression is taken with caution when it comes to freedom of speech. As Britain does not have a written constitution, there is no legal definition. It is left to the the UK Parliament’s House Of Lords, which is the highest judicial body of that nation, to explain what it means.

“Free’ in itself is vague and indeterminate. It must take its colour from the context. Compare, for instance, its use in free speech, free love, free dinner and free trade. Free speech does not mean free speech: it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition and so forth. It means freedom governed by law. “

So as you can see, freedom of expression means different thing to different people. This is true not only in theory but also at practical level. Hence, there is  no such thing as a single definition of freedom of expression. Many factors, internal and external, comes into play in order for one  to have a true picture and understanding of what feedom of expression and information means.

Chart 1

Definition Of Freedom Of Expression
United Nations 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 and regardless of frontiers.
House of Lords, UK “Free’ in itself is vague and indeterminate. It must take its colour from the context. Compare, for instance, its use in free speech, free love, free dinner and free trade. Free speech does not mean free speech: it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition and so forth. It means freedom governed by law
Malaysia 

 

 

United States

 

 

“Parliament may by law impose….on the rights….such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the federation or part thereof , friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence”.Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Notice that freedom of speech as outlined in the UN Charter depends on laws that preserve public dignity and aims to prevent lies being perpetrated. This is quite similar to Malaysia’s constitution. So, even in Britain and the US Freedom is governed by Law.

Limits to freedom

Therefore, freedom is not absolute. In the West where personal freedom is held in the highest esteem, there are still definable limits. Freedom of speech, in the words of an American jurist, does not include the freedom to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, unless of course there is a fire. America has enshrined in its constitution the Bill of Rights with the specific purpose of protecting the civil liberties of its citizens. Among its provisions are the freedoms of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly, together with the rights of due process.

These statutes notwithstanding, they did not protect Japanese Americans from being forcefully relocated and incarcerated during World War II, and more recently, the detention of thousands of Arab-Americans following the 9/11 attacks. Today the injustices perpetrated on those Japanese-Americans are widely acknowledged, but significantly, the Supreme Court decision affirming the legality of that mass detention has yet to be overturned.

There will always be limits to freedom; the pertinent question is where those lines are drawn and the role they play in the ordinary lives of the citizens. Limits on human freedom can be viewed likewise. In America there are definite limits but they are more like the moat; the citizens are hardly aware of them. They are not intrusive. Executive powers to establish military tribunals for example, are definite boundaries and gross infringements on the citizens’ freedom. Similarly Canada has its War Powers Act that gives its prime minister as sweeping a power as Malaysia’s ISA. Indeed the War Powers Act was used in 1970 by no less than the libertarian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Because these statutes are rarely invoked except in national emergencies, citizens do not feel constrained by them.

One good recent  example is Wikileaks and how Western nations, especially the United States, reacted to the whistleblower website. For a country that lectures on others about Press Freedom, the USA certainly showed an inconsistent response. It seems that America expounds freedom of expression only when it suits themselves. Julian Assange, the hero or villain in this saga depending on where one stands, is being made to pay a heavy price for thinking that the Western countries really mean it when they claim that they are committed to press freedom. All that he has done is to publish information that the United States of America does not like. And yet we have, all the time, been made to believe that the US is the embodiment of all the fundamental human rights in the UN Charter, including freedom of the press.

Soon after his Wikileaks organisation published embarrassing information about US activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US got Sweden to press crafted and trumped-up charges of rape against Assange. Following that, Wikileaks has been publishing information from cables sent from US embassies around some 250 countries around the world. The reaction of the US has been to come down on  Assange like a ton of bricks. Just imagine if anything remotely similar had happened in Iran or China, or Zimbabwe: the US and the western countries would have awarded the whistleblower the Nobel Price. The irony of all this is that the western countries, who are chasing Assange for embarrassing the US, were awarding the Nobel Price to a Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who has been imprisoned in China for inciting subversion.

Responsible journalism

In Malaysia, we have a unique situation of a plural society of contrasting cultures and faiths that has only achieved independence in just over fifty years. We still have some ways to go in achieving a level of maturity that would see a higher level of tolerance and acceptance in each other’s difference.

No one wants to pit one community against another, and those who walk through the corridors of power sometimes bend over backwards to preserve harmony. Some people think the press has been restricted, but please remember that it’s better to err on the side of caution. The alternative could be disastrous. In the Malaysian context as a multicultural nation the media must avoid publishing or broadcasting News or programmes of a sensitive nature or pertaining to race, radicalism and that which runs contrary to the values of a multicultural Malaysia. The media has a task to take part in nation-building and help create awareness in the public about support for national development projects which benefit them.

They are also responsible in contributing to a harmonious multi-cultural society, national unity and the formation of national policies. They must be aware that in a democratic society they must use their abilities for mutual honour, mutual respect, mutual trust and understanding to stave off suspicion and prejudice.

The threats of Communism, racism and religious extremism to the stability and security of the nation were manifested in the nation’s history through the Emergency lasting 12 years and the May 13 race riots in 1969, and a host of other incidents related to race and religion. The media must be careful not to present the situation out of context to reality and be responsible, otherwise misunderstandings are bound to occur.

A society which is liberal, tolerant and democratic needs to be created in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation. So it is with the traditional role of independent journalism which needs to report the facts without fear or favour. Truly, a skilled and honest journalist who can be held in trust is an asset to the nation.

Strengthening of freedom of expression and information

Nevertheless, there is always room for improvement for our society. We can strengthen freedom of expression while at the same time promote more responsible journalism through several means. We can do that by:

  • Easing of draconian laws such as sedition act and the ISA. I must say that in this context, Malaysia is moving towards the right direction. Commitment has been made by the government to abolish ISA by 2012 and to replace it with two laws that are more liberal, humane and democratic, I hope.
  • Give protection to journalists, such as when they need to keep their sources of information confidential for security purposes. Malaysia should also follow the footsteps of some 40 states in the United States of America (USA) in introducting what is known as the shield laws that provide protection to journalists in disclosing sources of information in stories of public interest.
  • Uphold the freedom of the media, as part of freedom of expression, as a constitutional right similar to that of the First Amendment in the US, for both new and old media. Time has come for the government not merely to abolish renewal of annual permit to publish newspapers, magazines, but also to get away with the printing act that governed the print media in this country i.e. the Printing and Publication Act of 1984.
  • Enact Freedom of Information Act which spell a general right of access to all type of recorded information held by public authorities.The free flow of information is crucial not for a properly functioning democracy, but  as a centerpiece to promote government accountability. It is also a vital tool for investigative journalists.

People need information – accurate information that is – in order to make judgement about current events; they need to know what information about them is held in order to check its validity. It follows that the way that information is controlled is critical. And in efforts to make the Freedom of Information Act something that is beneficial to public at large, government agencies should not suppress information with slow, incompetent and incomplete response. For representatives of the news media, fees that is ordinarily charged for responding to an information request, should be waived or cap it at minimal cost. Similar privileges should be extended to educational or non commercial scientific institutions, whose purpose is scholarly or scientific research.

Chart 2

Strengthening Freedom Of  Expression
Ease draconian laws such as sedition act and the ISA
Protect  journalists, such as when they need to keep their sources of information confidential for security purposes.
Uphold the freedom of the media, as part of freedom of expression, as a constitutional right, for both new and old media.

Ownership and control and audience

Social responsibility is the role of different sectors, that is, the media or individuals, such as traditional media, new media and the social media. Perhaps the underlying thread of the debate on freedom of expression – and following that, the media – is ownership and audience. It applies to this country and to other third world and developed nations as well. The agenda, or editorial stand taken by any media organization depends on who owns and thereby controls it. Be aware that it works here just as any other part of the world.

If you owned your own newspaper or TV station, wouldn’t you want it to output what you like? And that is your right, as you own it. That is the general situation in Malaysia, where the majority of the mainstream media bodies are owned by companies linked to, or supportive of, the component parties of the Barisan Nasional .

Besides, the mainstream media in Malaysia also have to be mindful of their respective target audience. Disappointing a niche audience , be they Malay, English or mandarin speaking may result in drop of circulation, or worse, outright boycott.But that is also in principle similar, if not the same, in the so-called Western democracies.

Concentration of ownership and implication of freedom

This brings us to another factor:  The concentration of the media. Concentration of media ownership  refers to a process whereby progressively fewer individuals or organizations control increasing share of the mass media.

Contemporary research demonstrates increasing levels of consolidation, with many media industries already highly concentrated and dominated by a very small number of firms.

We cannot really accept any society of being absolutely free when the narrative of the media becomes increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, like what is happening in the developed countries. The editors of News media are not “free” to publish what they like. Whether they like it or not, the journalists must please their stakeholders, that is the owners, the shareholders and the companies that advertise in them. In the end, the public might feel that their needs have been sacrificed just to pander to other interested parties.

When media ownership is concentrated in one or more of the ways mentioned above, a number of undesirable consequences follow, including the following:

 

Chart 3

Debates and Issues

 

  •  Commercially driven, ultra-powerful mass market media is primarily loyal to sponsors, i.e. advertisers and government rather than to the public interest.
  •  If only a few companies representing the interests of a minority elite control the public airwaves of 300 million US citizens, then calling them “public airwaves” is only lip service.
  • Healthy, market-based competition is absent, leading to slower innovation and increased prices.

 

This is valid in all societies, including the western nations. Media concentration is closely related to issues of editorial independence, media bias and freedom of the press. In that sense, the term “media consolidation” is used especially by those who view such consolidation as detrimental, dangerous, or problematic. When a company or individual owns a media body, it is natural to assume that the organization has a bias.

For sure, media bias dues to ownership and concentration would result in the phenomena show in the chart “types of bias”.

Chart 4

Types of bias

 

The most commonly discussed forms of bias occur when the media support or attack a particular political party, candidate, or ideology, but other common forms of bias include

  • Advertising bias, when stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers.
  • Corporate bias. When stories are selected or slanted to please corporate owners of media.
  • Mainstream bias, a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone.
  • Sensationalism. Bias in favor of the exceptional over the ordinary, giving the impression that rare events, such as airplane crashes, are more common than common events, such as automobile crashes.

Other forms of bias including reporting that favors or attacks a particular race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, or ethnic group.

 

News international of Rupert Murdoch as a prime example of media bias.

Nowhere  is bias due to media concentration seen more than the media empire of Rupert Murdoch, which spans four continents.The current level of ownership concentration here in Australia continues to be one of the highest in the world. Rupert Murdoch, the world’s most powerful media mogul, already decides what’s fit to print in many newspapers and T.V stations in  Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

So powerful is Murdoch that in the recent phone hacking scandal, all the media entities owned by him and his sons have downplayed the gravity of the practice, or even remained silent about it. Instead a clutch of independently-owned newspapers such as the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph have taken up the issue. For this reason there need to be rules which media owners respect and accept. We need rules to prevent one company from having too much control over the media content. We must have reliable systems developed which ensure a diversity of media ownership, so that competition within the media stimulates a wide range of perspectives on public policy issues and acts as a check on the political power of the media magnates.

In the case of Malaysia, expect the products of the news media of the B-N-linked parties to be sympathetic to the ruling coalition. Likewise, news products of the opposition parties will not give any rooms to the government.

Ethical journalism: self-regulation or self-censorship?

Public anger in the West over the excessive power of the media concentrated in the hands of a few, and conversely in the developing countries with ruling parties owning the mainstream media have prompted some analysts to suggest a form of independent watchdog to regulate the media. An idependent supervisor might reduce the possibility of conflict of interest in the media, while being separate from political entities.

As for self-regulation, cynics might call this self-censorship. Media bodies might  with hold information because of fear of repercussions from stake-holders. This will ultimately lead to loss of confidence from the public. The issue of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain is one such example, where all the media owned by Rupert Murdoch, even those in Australia and America, gave little space to the serious breach of privacy even though it amounted to criminal offence. Eventually, it was such a serious matter that a deeply embarrassed Murdoch had no choice but to close down the newspaper responsible for the scandal.

Professional journalists do have a code of ethics. Journalists make judgments about what’s safe and appropriate to report which often involves difficult choices. The core problem is that most journalists are employees, not autonomous professionals like, say, a lawyer. The main issue for truth in reporting is advertisers or media owners putting pressure on editors and journalists to publish or hold stories.

Unfortunately journalists don’t always control the end product of their work as published or broadcast. Regrettably the majority of the key decision-makers in media organizations, such as the owners, the people who really wield power and from whom responsibility should be extracted, are not subject to any ethical codes or enforcement system.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would suggest that we craft a form of Freedom of Expression that takes into account our complex society that is unlike any other. We cannot copy wholesale the models of other parts of the World, as they are not perfect either, especially as there are elements of double standards in other nations as well. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. What we have is relative freedom i.e. freedom governed by law or defined in the context  in which the society exists. Freedom of expression and information is very much dictated by the internal or national and to a certain extent the external dynamics of the nations. And it differs from nation to nation, depending whether the nation is homogenous or multiracial.

 

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