*Assess the claim that an uncensored press is dangerous.
A famous saying goes- ‘ The ability to do great good rarely comes without some power to do harm, and the free press is no exception to this general rule.’ This definately holds true in today’s world. An uncensored press has made a lot of positive impacts in today’s society-it has given rise to pluralism, it has made people aware on various issues and it has brought down totalitarian regimes. However, the media has also shown its negative side by defaming public figures, by instigating violence and endangering the justice system when left completely on its own. Thus, an uncensored press can be dangerous as well as beneficial depending on various circumstances.
An uncensored press is more an advantage than a danger in democratic societies when it acts as a human rights watchdog and a promoter of discussion. Firstly, it will expose wrongdoings of people in power and make them accountable for the crimes they have committed. For example, by exposing the war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces during their offensive against the Tamil Tigers, the media fuelled UN’s attempt to bring criminals to justice. Furthermore, the international media has also been able to publicize corruption taking place in the Iraqi administration which compelled the government to enforce strict laws regarding this national issue. Dictator Fernando Marcos of Philipines was also ousted from power after media’s revelation of his corrupt administration. An uncensored press will also promote dialogue and discussion since it allows ideas to flow freely without any restrictions. By publishing a variety of viewpoints, the media will promote pluralism and permit citizens to express their discontent regarding the government or any other issue. When this is done, much needed changes are made. The media’s coverage of discrimination of Dalits and women in rural areas has led many human rights activists to campaign about these serious issues in an effort to change people’s mentality towards women and Dalits.
By educating the public about various issues, an uncensored press will benefit the society in various ways. Firstly, the press helps the citizens in keeping abreast with latest news and also acts as a tool for the government to launch various public service campaigns. In 2005, when many Nepalis died of epilepsy, the media played an integral role in providing awareness about the disease through radio broadcasts and newspaper publications. Similarly, the media can play an equally important role in disseminating information on drug abuse and HIV/AIDS which still remain grave problems for our nation. For example, the act of expelling three HIV infected children was given so much public scrutiny that social activists launched campaigns in rural districts stressing that touching or talking with each other will not transmit this disease. Furthermore, when a press does not provide authentic information to its citizens, it will trigger false rumors, depriving the public of the truth. Many countries such as Iran and other Middle East countries deny that Holocaust took place. Moreover, developed countries like US also allege that global warming is just a farce and suppress news relating to climate change. As a result, when the public is not aware of the past mistakes committed like the Holocaust and the Tianamen Square Massacre; there is a possibility that such mistakes can be repeated again. In addition, when coverage of information relating to poverty, global warming and hunger are restricted, it will not augur well for the entire community since these issues will not be addressed.
However, an uncensored press is dangerous when it defames public figures and infringes people’s right to privacy. An uncensored press tends to libel public figures thus violating Article 15 of UNHRD which states that ‘everyone has the right not to be defamed.’ When public figures are libelled by the media, it will spoil people’s opinion of them, they will be scorned by the public and in most cases, they will find their career being shattered by false accusations. Such was the case when Richard Jewel was accused of masterminding the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta which turned out to be a false accusation. Furthermore, to charge somebody with an offense that they are not responsible for is a totally unjustified. An uncensored press will also become a threat to corporations since it is more likely to reveal confidential information. Firstly, when clandestine information of a product regarding the ingredients and processes of production is leaked through the media, the other firms will attempt to manufacture the same product and sell it at a cheaper price. Coca Cola, Apple and other corporations found themselves victims when media published their operational plans and crucial product details. The press, if given too much of freedom will also tend to give unnecessary attention to the private lives of celebrities. By sensationalizing information on their affairs and relationships instead of their contribution to their respective professions, it can ruin the life of a celebrity. Ashley Cole and Tiger Woods have become the latest victims after the media published news articles on their alleged affairs with various women. In fact, the level of attention given to such stories far outweighs the importance they have for society.
An uncensored press can be disastrous when the so called hate speech provokes anger and violence. Firstly, hate speech, in most cases, results in murder and genocide. The horrific genocide that took place in Rwanda in the beginning of last decade resulted from Simon Bikindi’s inflammatory Anti-Tutsi hate speech which heightened the already volatile tensions between the ethnic groups. By publishing news articles demanding ‘Tutsi’s be exterminated’, he encouraged thousands of native Hutu’s to go on a rampage against Tutsi’s. However, it ought to also be noted that not all forms of hate speech should be censored. After all, in a democratic society, everyone should have the right to express their opinions without any impediment. For example, the assertion made by local papers in Arizona calling illegal Mexican immigrants ‘undocumented workers’ was not intended to instigate the minority Mexicans. In fact, it was just an opinion made by several Native Americans on Mexicans living illegally in their country. Thus, it is necessary that a media draws a line between comments that are meant to incite violence and those that seem relatively innocuous.
The news coverage given by an uncensored press during a period of natural disaster will prove to be dangerous and misleading. When a free press sensationalizes information on calamities such as the outbreak of a virulent disease, it will lead to devastating panic. While covering information on epidemics such as the swine flu or bird flu, the media tend to broadcast information by giving an exaggerated picture rather than an accurate one. Media powerhouses in India like Aaj Tak and NDTV are blatant examples of such practices. Similarly, the media also hyped their reporting on cyclone Aila causing widespread panic among Bangladeshi citizens, causing many of them flee to the coastal areas. In the end, the effect of the cyclone was very less in comparison to the attention given by Medias of the approaching cyclone, warning the public that the effects of the cyclone will be disastrous.
There are also other instances when an uncensored press can be dangerous. Uncensored press can be a threat when information relating to national security is concerned. Any leakage of intelligence information can be costly to the state. In 1971, when New York Times published classified ‘Pentagon Papers’, many US officials feared that it will give valuable information to Al-Qaeda and help them expand their terrorist base in the United States. Moreover, the media’s publication of photos showing naked children running away from soldiers and photos of its offensive during the Vietnam War changed American attitudes towards the war as the public appealed for an immediate cessation of violence. Furthermore, free press will also endanger the justice system. The limelight given to high profile criminal cases can sway the jurors before the legal arguments are even heard. The media’s attention to Kasab’s role in the Mumbai massacre and the public outrage that followed may have prejudiced the jurors against Kasab, fearing that if Kasab is not proven guilty, then it will lead to a widespread furor. In addition, the Indian judiciary is facing a lot of pressure and threats from the victims of Bhopal disaster who want the initiators of the disaster to be given a death penalty and not be shown any leniency. As a result of this, the defendants might lose their right to a fair trial.
Thus, from the ideas expressed above we can conclude that the media should have a high degree of freedom to publish things they wish to publish. But having said that, there should be some form of regulation to monitor the publication of information since any libellous statement and any derogatory remark against a particular group of people may spark a retaliatory action from those accused. To sum up, we can say that an uncensored press can be dangerous when it invades people’s right to privacy, when it libels public figures, when it endangers the judiciary and when hate speeches are broadcasted. On the contrary, we can also assert that an uncensored press can be an advantage since it educates the public and strengthens democracy by giving all citizens their right to opine.
(* Received from a reader)