Freedom of the press does not have the same meaning everywhere in the world. In countries such as North Korea, Iran or Burma, media restrictions are easier for us to see as we’re viewing from the outside and comparing them to what we know as ‘right’. However, what makes the ‘right’ combination of press and broadcasting freedom? And has the UK mastered it?
The entire media sector – print and broadcast – has to come to terms with the Internet and World Wide Web. Granted, UK journalists rarely face the same degree of intimidation or censorship as crude as assassination which is the everyday reality of some of their overseas counterparts, but they do face a range of legal restrictions which inhibit freedom of expression.
A poll from the BBC World Service – World divided on press freedom asserts that opinions are divided on the importance of having a free press with freedom of expression. According to the poll, 56% thought that freedom of the press was very important to ensure a free society. But 40% said it was more important to maintain social harmony and peace, even if it meant curbing the press’ freedom to report news truthfully. Pollsters interviewed 11,344 people in 14 countries for the survey and in most press freedom (including broadcasting) was considered more important than social stability.
One could argue the United Kingdom has a culture of official secrecy, with only limited public and press rights to local government information and meetings. There are currently many campaigns for improvements and changes to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Local Government Act 2000 in light of this.
On the other hand, The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law, which includes both rights to privacy and rights to freedom of expression, open justice and to protection of private life. The exceptions in Article 10.2 of the ECHR come under the following headings:
• licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises
• national security
• territorial integrity
• public safety
• prevention of disorder or crime
• protection of health or morals
• protection of the reputation or rights of others
• preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence
• maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary
Understanding these exceptions is something Charity English Pen are working towards. The charity, which promotes literature and Human Rights, accept that many constraints on the right to freedom of speech are necessary and appropriate. For instance, English PEN would not campaign to reduce broadcasting restrictions such as the ‘watershed’ principle of screening adult material only after 9pm. Or not campaign against the Official Secrets Act, which limits the circulation of information in the interests of national security. English Pen’s philosophy is to promote literature as a means of greater understanding between the world’s people, which can be done with great success through the internet.
It seems fair to say that the arrival of the digital revolution, the evolution of the Internet, the emergence of new forms of media and the rise of online social networks, has reshaped the media. It also brings fresh arguments to the press and broadcast freedom journalists encounter. It is well recognised that the growth of the Internet has greatly expanded the ability of individuals, groups, and others to enhance their freedom of expression and their rights to seek, receive and impart information as recognised by international human rights standards. Specifically news media platforms have made it possible for almost any citizen to communicate to a large audience around the world are challenging authorities, exposing corruption, and expressing their opinions via the internet.
An organisation fighting to promore freedom of expression via the internet is web organisation Index on Censorship. The website provides news and information on free expression from around the world. Index on Censorship was founded as a magazine in 1972, when editor Michael Scammell and a group of writers, journalists and artists took to the page in defence of the basic human right of freedom of expression for writers in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. It has since developed to an organisation promoting free expression, based around its website.
However, in spite of these organisations, new barriers and new attempts to block, filter and censor information are being created. At the same time, the proliferation of the Internet, social networks, and new-generation mobile telephony raises new concerns related to privacy and security of the users. One would question what – if any – freedom is evident here.
What we need to look into next is how far the media can go in their reports under UK libel law before action is taken.