Media freedom comes with great responsibility

opinion May 10, 2017 01:00

By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

2,747 Viewed

It boils down to being able to write and report what one should, responsibly.

This simple definition of press freedom has generated debates down the generations and counting. “Should” and “responsibly” are slippery words whose interpretations vary from one ideology to another. Thailand is no stranger to the controversy, which is rearing its ugly yet familiar head once again.

The uproar against the interim legislature, which is seeking to create what amounts to a governing body for journalists, underscores the clash of opinions over “should” and “responsibility”. So much has been said about how the media can best function under a “free” atmosphere, and most critics of the legislature are right. Human evolution depends on freedom of information and thought, and nobody should decide for others what should be reported or written. It’s as simple as that.

The interim lawmakers’ move is deplorable, but slamming them is the easy part. Understanding why a lot of people are losing faith in the mainstream media is a lot harder, especially if you are a journalist. Attempting to restore that eroding faith is hardest of all. Nothing unites reporters like an effort, or perceived effort, by the powers-that-be to control their work, but nothing divides them like debating how far they can and should go in the complete absence of control.

“Freedom” and “responsibility” don’t usually go hand in hand. Typically, the stronger the former, the weaker the latter, and vice versa. For the conventional media, though, they have no choice but to perform a balancing act, because stronger responsibility may just, only just, also mean stronger freedom.

And while “good” laws can create an atmosphere for free thinking, their “facilitating” role should never be exaggerated. In other words, the best media laws can never guarantee good journalism. After the laws are passed, there’s still a long, long way to go.

Trawl YouTube for “9/11 conspiracy” videos and the word “press freedom” takes on a different and much darker complexion. Of course, each country’s laws play a big role in how its journalists perform their duties, but those videos tell us that legislation is not everything. In the end, for the news media to be absolutely independent, responsible and professional in their duties, the onus is not on so-called dinosaurs, but on those in the fourth estate themselves.

In short, even the “freest” media people can be ignorant. Yet where the 9/11 attacks are concerned, “ignorance” is often the least damning verdict. Far harsher words of criticism, like “irresponsibility” or “downright negligence”, have been poured upon the mainstream media by those seeking truth, who are hastily dismissed as “conspiracy theorists” for their pains. 

The media – both in the free world and the not-so-free world – have been challenged for years over who killed thousands of innocent civilians when four jetliners were hijacked to bring down three skyscrapers and wreck part of the Pentagon. The “official” story has been taken at face value by “independent journalism” since Day One. No mainstream media outlet has dug deep into wholly legitimate questions emerging from the ashes of 9/11.

These are not speculative questions, like how inexperienced “terrorists” could pilot commercial planes in movie-like acrobatic manoeuvres and slam them into targets at high speeds with great precision. The videos raise scientific scepticism solid enough to warrant serious investigation by the mass media. But such probes are virtually non-existent, leaving the immense job to bloggers, “alternative” media websites or obsessive individuals motivated by doubt or anger. Worse still, the latter group have been branded conspiracy nuts, and thus prematurely discredited, by the mainstream media.

As we can see, laws can be overrated where journalism is concerned. “Freedom” resides not just in legislation but also in willingness to bring out the truth. This is where “responsibility” comes into play. It’s not just responsibility for national security, but also for fellow human beings. Not reporting on something of legitimate public interest because the law prohibits it is not bad journalism; it’s simply a bad law. Not reporting on something in spite of legal or constitutional empowerment is bad journalism hands down.

So, to be free is hard, but to be responsible is harder still. A media “council” is all that critics of the military government are thinking about now, apparently, yet the real issue is not how to get freedom but what to do with it. Freedom has held sway for decades in many countries, but the same can’t be said of responsibility.

Some may consider it a chicken and egg situation. Without freedom, how are we supposed to teach the media about responsibility? This argument justifies the outrage against the interim legislature, but, as far as journalism is concerned, it’s not even half the battle. Responsibility, after all, can be considered a notch higher than freedom because it requires self-restraint, true respect for human rights, and knowing who or what to serve.