The eighteenth century French philosopher Voltaire once said “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
Actually he never said, or wrote, any such thing but such is the strength of principle and imagery inherent in the statement that it has been misattributed to him frequently for more than a hundred years. Of course, I’m happy to correct the error as I am doing here but I’m even happier that I live in an environment where such a slip wouldn’t cause me to be blacklisted, fired or even arrested and beaten. In many parts of the world, such dangers lurk around every corner for journalists and writers who may not even make a mistake as egregious as mine. Their only crime might be writing something entirely truthful that conflicted with what those in power wanted.
May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day and in a week where Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff admitted in an interview that the current administration had “looked at” altering the first amendment protecting free speech in the US it’s worth highlighting some of the information regarding the state of freedom of the press around the world.
There are two fantastic resources available to help us discuss issues of press freedom around the world. Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) produce a global free press index and Freedom House produce an annual freedom of the press report. They employ different methodologies, with RSF taking their data directly from reporters working on the ground around the world and Freedom house assessing national situations against a set of objective criteria in order to arrive at a score and together they help to create an accurate picture of the conditions under which reporting takes place across the world.
Unfortunately it’s not always a particularly enjoyable picture to look at. Freedom house’s latest 2017 report states that “Global press freedom declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 amid unprecedented threats to journalists and media outlets in major democracies and new moves by authoritarian states to control the media” and assesses that of the 7.5 billion people alive today, only 13% of them enjoy access to a free media. RSF classify 131 of the 180 countries they measure to have “problematic”, “bad” or “very bad” contexts in which reporters must operate.
World Press Freedom Day is an important reminder every year of the fact that, as a species, we’ve barely even begun to enshrine some of the most valuable enlightenment-era advances in our social thinking into law and practice. It’s doubly important at the moment because the press is under attack in previous strongholds of freedom of speech. We live, today, in a world where entirely fabricated news is created and spread for political gain, where the label used to describe this phenomenon, “fake news”, has been hijacked and redefined to mean “news I don’t like”. We live in a world where a misplaced mistrust of mainstream media has become so commonplace as to create an acronym (“MSM”) that seems to be hurled around as a pejorative by those seeking easy answers to complex problems. Against this backdrop we need loud and bold voices to defend freedom of speech even more. The temptation is to react by going after those we can see flagrantly abusing their freedom. The temptation is always to move away from free speech. But the solution to disinformation is not censorship, it is education and it always has been. Because if people abusing the privilege of a free press has a negative effect on society, it’s nothing compared to the effect of those same people abusing the right to curtail it.
This is never the most pleasant battle, especially as you find yourself allying with those you’d probably prefer not to. Defending a blogger’s right to publish dissent in an authoritarian regime means also defending the Daily Mail’s right to scream “Crush The Saboteurs”. And while, of course, it is right and proper that there are always limits of free speech and a free press – hate speech, for example, should be neither defended, nor tolerated – the underlying commitment must remain the same. The misattributed Voltaire quote should be our guiding principle.