One of the greatest legacy of democratic governance is the right of free expression. During the era of monarchies, telling the truth to power was usually a direct ticket to prison or death. But democracy has made it possible for people to express their opinion no matter how diverse without fear of persecution. Most developing countries still clamping down on the media see the press as inconsiderate saboteurs trying to measure them against the advanced institutions of the developed countries. Others clamp down on the press because of religious differences with the free world. Still, others has political reasons.
For the developed world, the right to free press has undergone significant changes. It has moved from free speech to a dictatorship of majority opinion. Ironically, this was the reason why the policy was necessary in the first place. And governments in developed countries are increasingly finding it convenient to manipulate public opinion through the media. Some governments use careful leaks to coerce the press into reporting news in a perspective that favor them or stifle reports they deem unfavorable with the almighty national security clout. So the press that was supposed to be an independent observer has become a propaganda machine of governments in power. In today’s news coverage, among the media giants, there´s also a growing tendency to not air some reports, not because such reports are not news worthy, but simply because they may offend the majority of the viewing public. The result is that the news media has become an entertainment industry in the real sense of the word, where reports of note are jettisoned for feel good coverages.
How free is freedom of expression when it could be manipulated? When it could dictate public opinion? When it could become a subtle weapon of warfare to destroy perceived enemies? How free is freedom of the press when news corporations are corporate entities selling their shares in the stock markets, especially when these entities dictate the flow of information? How free is freedom of expression when anyone with a TV camera or hosting a Radio talk show sees himself or herself as possessing more power than he or she really is worth?
And the contrast exists, based solely on contrasting definitions of religious, political and socio-cultural differences that exist in diverse geo-politics. A stark example is the Danish cartoons of Mohamed and the violent demonstrations it generated in the Muslim world. In each case, the protagonists and the antagonists were expressing their right to free expression. In a world that has become so interconnected, how does one express his right to free speech without seemingly hurting the feelings of others. Their are those that will come up with “this is how we live” approach, but such views are no different from the views of those Islamic fundamentalist ideologues wanting to have their way.
Is there a moral need to revisit press freedom even in the discreet sense? Does it make any sense when individuals are left to set limits to their free speech especially in today’s world that has gone haywire? How viable is a situation where governments apologize when their press offend others yet do nothing to check a repeat performance? Is the press actually free especially in the free world where subtle coercion produces the same results as intimidation in the developing world? How does it feel to be at the receiving end of media jabs when such jabs are based on fabricated or stereotyped reports?
Though this writer do not subscribe to any government that clamps down on its press, but there is a moral need to accommodate views that differs from ours in a globalized village. Yeah! Rome conquered Greece but was reconquered by Greek culture and philosophy. There´s always something to learn from those “outlandish” cultures that have increasingly become the butt of our jokes. While governments work to smooth-en out diversities that exist, a little self restraint from the media could make all the difference.