Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Free speech? What free speech?

The recent disciplinary action against DhiFM for covering the protest outside the President's residence on 28 Jan 2010 is a way to control the infant independent media in the country. Such acts will stifle the development of free media in the country.

Lots of people support the disciplinary action based on one or more of the following reasons:
1. Freedom of expression does not mean you can say what the hell ever you want.
2. The coverage was PROMOTING the protest rather than REPORTING it, which is not ok.
3. Journalists should be subject to journalistic ethics and responsibility.
4. Free speech does not mean you can yell 'fire' in a crowded theatre.

Lets examine the above one by one:
- If (1) is true, then it begs the question, does freedom of expression mean you have to say what someone else wants? If it is not you who decides what you should say, then who does? Who holds this authority? If there is such an authority, is there a meaning to the term 'freedom of expression'? It is free from what now?

- Does the mere act of covering it constitute promoting it as in (2)? What about the people who went around on pickups announcing to participate in the crowd. Do they not have that freedom? If one of them gives an interview and asks the viewers to participate, is it the media's fault, if it is a fault at all?

- Who defines these journalistic ethics as in (3)? What responsibility and to whom?

- (4) is a very famous one often repeated by those who want to stifle freedom. Actually one has the right to yell 'fire' in crowded theatre. What is s/he supposed to do if there is a fire? Does it not become an obligation in that situation? That makes it an obligation that we don't have the right to exercise! Actually the case of (4) is quite broad, which I will address in another post.

It is my opinion that such actions by the government will reduce the media freedom. Actually the fact that it is a licensed regime indicates that there is no room for free media and free speech.


Yaamyn said...

I believe points 2 and 3 have been taken almost verbatim from a comment I posted on Minivan News.

So let me defend it a little.

I like to make a distinction between media and individuals.

I do not fault the Opposition leaders or any free individual to air their voices, call for protest or more people to turn out. That is their democratic right to free speech.

A media channel, such as DhiTV/DhiFM, on the other hand forms an important 4th pillar of democracy.

There are two ways that a media can operate - one is to fulfil this responsibility as a fourth pillar, and disemminate accurate information to the public, and the other is to chase the ratings game.

A media outlet like the BBC that lives by an ethics code doesn't so much as refer to Bin Laden as a 'terrorist', not because the reporters don't think he is one, but because it's not the job of the media to make judgments.

As a responsible media, DhiTV should probably have stuck to its job in reporting the whole story. The events leading upto the day, the ruling party's version of events, the opposing party's version of events, and the goings on at the protest.

Instead, it acted as a promoter of the protest by actively joining in, and acting as a media partner for the protest! (Surely, you can never imagine BBC giving continuous airtime to protest leader to call in for reinforcements, addressing people directly through their channel?)

Therein lies the difference.

I also sincerely believe TVM should have a few points knocked off for its decidedly pro-government tilt.

I've said this on my blog too. I do not think there's a single responsible media outlet in the Maldives.

meekaaku said...

Actually, BBC is more or less an exception rather than the rule in today's mainstream media. BBC is also quite selective and biased, but it is considerably better than others. BBC is a semi-private media, it is financed with mandatory TV license fees. This makes it a public-financed one and its obligations to the public are quite different from other private media.

Apart from that, is it not the media all over the world, (the so called 4th pillar) that is influencing the public opinion with twists and bias? To what standards have they been held? Who is defining these standards and ethics?
If government is able to withhold their license or deduct points/penalise them, the media is then free from what actually? Or is it going to be the Content Council, which will no doubt be subject to its own bias.

Yaamyn said...

Yes, meekaaku.

All the good things are more of an exception than the mainstream.

Nevertheless, the BBC plays the part of a responsible media to the public by having a well-defined code of ethics, along with the numerous documentaries and informational programmes they do.

You are right. The mainstream media is HUGELY influential when it comes to forming public opinion.

This is precisely why they have such an important role to play. They can incite crowds, if they want. They can skew public opinion towards a person/party of their choice if they so wish to. But the result of it would be higher ratings, perhaps.. but less democracy.

A well-functioning democracy needs a well-informed public, not a misled or misguided public. And neutral, unbiased information can only be provided by a neutral, unbiased media.

That forms the basis and substance of my entire argument for all news media to strictly adhere to an ethical code.

Unfortunately, we don't have such a media channel.

meekaaku said...

"A well-functioning democracy needs a well-informed public"
True, but where do we find such an informed public? Certainly not here, apparently neither in US or Europe. Well-informedness occurs at various levels.

A neutral unbiased media is a rare breed actually. Being biased is inherently not bad, as long as the the opposing views have their voice (not necessarily on the same channel).