Can free speech be counter-productive?

Professional journalism must take centre stage in our attempts to create a better world.

A Tunisian journalist displays his press card during a rally to mark World Press Freedom Day in Tunis [EPA]

Will the world really be a better place when freedom of expression is guaranteed? This certainly is the conviction of a strong and vocal lobby of more than 200 civil society groups advocating free speech, press freedom and access to information. At stake is the wording of a new framework for global development replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s).

The 2015 deadline of “the most successful global anti poverty push in history”, as UN secretary general Ban-ki Moon called the MDG’s, is approaching. Though not all targets have yet been met, heated discussions behind the scenes are already taking place to formulate a new global development agenda. The new Sustainable Development Goals should result in a world “without poverty in all its forms” in 2030: no violence, a healthy life for all, food security, permanent education, gender equality, good governance and a number of other lofty targets. 

Although few would deny that “good governance” contributes to development, peace and a better world, the question really is how to define it. According to the high level panel, good governance is understood as “a society’s ability to guarantee the rule of law, free speech and open and accountable government”. The panel includes eminent leaders from global civil society, private sector and governments and is chaired by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyonio, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

The negative effects of political propaganda, disinformation and incitement to hatred and discrimination are well-documented. However, professional journalism is not the same as free speech; it is a constrained form of free speech, that takes into account principles of verification, fairness, accuracy, balance, responsibility and public interest.

If good governance implies upholding free speech, access to governmental information and independent media acting as a watchdog, the question remains how to incorporate these issues into the development agenda. Some see accountability as a cross-cutting theme. Others, like most free speech and press freedom lobbyists, advocate for a separate global development goal. Free media and quality journalism, they argue, play a crucial role in informing the public, facilitating the debate and creating a culture of accountability.

Accurate, easy access data

There are also sound technical arguments to link development to a free flow of information. Citizens and governments need accurate and easily-accessible data and information to make better decisions and to check that these decisions are effectively carried out. On the other hand, it is important that governments share more of their information, online or otherwise.

Access by all to vital data like statistics, budgets, monitoring, evaluation and financial reports, the land registry etc, prevents corruption, facilitates effectiveness and provides legitimacy to development processes. In fact, the absence of reliable and updated data was identified as one of the biggest obstacles for achieving the MDG’s. If the political will is there, modern technology makes it possible for the authorities to open up and make open government data available for citizens, experts and international organisations.

In a document on the UNESCO website, published on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day 2014, it says that “a society that is guaranteed access to public documents and public decision-making is able to bring conflicts of interest to light and empower citizens with information about development processes”. UNESCO advocates therefore access to information laws that enable citizens, including journalists, to easily and freely access information in the public domain.

The push for greater openness, freedom, accountability and – as a logical consequence – professional and credible journalism, is presented as a way to help eradicate poverty and create a better world. But it can, in fact, also lead to an ideological and political turning point.

Although the UN Security Council adopted already in 1949 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in many countries this document remains, at least partly, a dead letter. Take the famous article 19 of the Declaration: 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. A recently published report by the US-based organisation Freedom House reports that in 2013 global press freedom fell to its lowest level in more than 10 years.

Especially in the Middle East, some European countries like Ukraine and Russia and in East Africa, national security issues (and other excuses) were used by governments to impede media freedom. According to Freedom House, in 2013 only 14 percent of the world’s population enjoyed a free press – and those 14 percent live mainly in the industrialised world, not in developing countries that are most in need of the new Sustainable Development Goals.

An Islamic answer

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was introduced 65 years ago, with its potentially far reaching article about freedom of expression and opinion, some criticised the Western bias of the document. Islamic critics said the Human Rights Declaration was based on a secular world view and Western philosophy. In 1980 the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, issued by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, was generally seen as an “Islamic answer” to the UDHR. In the Cairo Declaration’s article 22, the right of everyone to express his opinion freely is guaranteed, as long as it is not “contrary to the principles of the Sharia”.

Inside Story – Uncomfortable truths: how free is the press?

To include a specific goal in the SDG’s 2015-2030 to ensure free expression, pluralistic and independent media and governmental transparency, would certainly lead to more discussion about the universality of this objective. In many parts of the world, governments want to be in control of the main media messages and are not ready to allow a free debate, a free flow of information, let alone annoying watchdogs.

Sometimes media and journalists are tightly controlled by the government precisely because they are supposed to play an “active and constructive role” in the country’s development. That is, the development as designed by the government or the ruling party. This is the case of Ethiopia that adopted “development journalism” as an official policy for its state media. The result is that Ethiopia scores badly in all press freedom indexes, because this form of journalism does not allow plurality, criticising the government and honest feedback from the audience.

Access to governmental information, regulated by law, is extremely rare in some parts of the world. In the Arab world only Jordan, Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia have Freedom of Information legislation, but have not yet built a solid practice of using it. In some Arab countries, governments set up information portals on the web, but citizens – including journalists – do not have the legal right to demand official information or to seriously question the bits and pieces of information provided.

If the principle of making governments more accountable, empowering citizens through free media and access to information is adopted by the United Nations, this might provoke a new media revolution. In this revolution, journalistic professionalism and ethics will play an important role. Free speech as such can be enormously counter-productive: the negative effects of political propaganda, disinformation and incitement to hatred and discrimination are well-documented. However, professional journalism is not the same as free speech; it is a constrained form of free speech, that takes into account principles of verification, fairness, accuracy, balance, responsibility and public interest. This kind of journalism may take the centre stage in the attempts to create a better world.

Jan Keulen is a Dutch journalist and media development consultant. He taught journalism at Rijks Universiteit Groningen, and served as general director of the Doha Centre for Media Freedom.