Is Press Freedom in the 21st Century Under Threat?

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in January 2015, where the right to exercise free speech became the eventual target, is the press in jeopardy of losing some of its freedom in the 21st century?


Photo Credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc via Wikipedia

It is a fear that sits at the fore in journalistic circles, that press freedom is being threatened in the wake of the deadly attacks on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, in January 2015. For a field that feeds off the right to free speech and holding society accountable for its actions, for which we also praise it, it is justifiably unnerving that more surveillance may be on the horizon for the power proudly hailed as the Fourth Estate.

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen most certainly speaks on behalf of many journalists worldwide:

The worry is that press self-censorship has been on the rise since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and this latest attack will just provoke further re-evaluation of the boundaries, or lack there of, of the media. An example that springs to mind is The Washington Post pulling the plug on a satirical cartoon from their weekly Sunday’s Post, back in 2010, which illustrated a scene which was intended to parody the western “Where’s Wally?”, with a bustling riverside scene with animals and donning the caption, “Where’s Muhammad?”. Apparently The Post was “concerned it might offend and provoke some Post readers, especially Muslims” as “it seemed a deliberate provocation without a clear message.” Sadly, this showcases the effect of fear-mongering that is threatening press freedoms. Journalism should test boundaries and have the confidence to make a statement, even if doing so risks sinking the proverbial ship, entirely. Why bother going into journalism at all, if you’re going to be a coward? Wherever you turn you will have your critics, so don’t be creatively and ethically compromised by the few who ruin it for everyone else. Without this premise behind journalistic practice, the point of journalism is defeated, completely.

Free speech advocates note that in the face of tragedy, we see governments scramble together to justify mass supervision of the press by arguing that the need for safety precautions around a threat, significantly outweigh the commitments to freedom of expression and privacy.

David Cameron immediately responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks via Twitter, swiftly noting the importance of protecting freedom of speech.

But, in hindsight, his comments were quite flippant. Turns out he was just full of hot air…

“The threat of terrorism has led to draconian laws all over the world over the last decade – but this time around [after the Charlie Hebdo attacks], the speed and breadth by which politicians praised free speech out of one side of their mouths, while moving to curtail rights out of the other, has been quite breathtaking.”

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, re-evaluation of press freedom in the UK has included:

  • Revision of the BBC’s editorial guidelines which state, “The prophet Mohammed must not be represented in any shape or form.” The guidance has since been struck off the list which seemed like a step in the right direction. However, it was just a tease…
  • UK newspapers chose not to reprint the most ‘supposedly controversial’ cartoons by the satirical magazine, after the attacks – arguing that they are exercising responsible journalistic practices by doing so.
  • The head of MI5 called for stricter press regulation to fight Islamic extremism, as a so-called counter-terrorism effort.
  • The Freedom of Information Act is also currently under heavy scrutiny and revision.

The point here, which those championing stricter regulations fail to see, is that it is a greater attack on freedom to restrict it all together.

The irony is that we claim to love our freedom of speech and if journalism could not exercise this right, we’d be on a slippery slope to a cotton-wool society, led blind by a corrupt system. Therefore, how can we preach democratic society but simultaneously curtail freedoms by hinting at a ‘Big Brother-esque’ supervision of the one field with the power to speak volumes, on behalf of the individual, the one field which is supposed to be a reliable and honest voice of, and for society? In other words, we can’t be bullied into handing over our freedom. The Fourth Estate must retain its strength as a body of reason and authority.

Terrorism will not win. #JeSuisCharlie


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