Free Press Or Foolishness

Feature Article Free Press Or Foolishness
DEC 3, 2010 LISTEN

An interesting quote from Samuel Hendel reads this way, “The fact, in short, is that freedom, to be meaningful in an organized society must consist of an amalgam of hierarchy of freedoms and restraints”. Voltaire goes on to add that, “We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard”.

As I sit here wondering about the sombreness that has engulfed a nation, precipitated by the loss of a World Cup bid, I am faced with the question of where free press ends and foolishness begins. The series of activities leading to the vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host nations must be judged as either being the quintessence of sagacity or the apotheosis of inanity.

Freedom of the press is the freedom of communication and expression through vehicles including various electronic media and published materials. While such freedom mostly implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state, its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”.

As Albert Camus rightly noted, “A free press can be good or bad, but, most certainly, without freedom a press will never be anything but bad.” We have definitely come a very long way. I do not in any way posit the view that all nations enjoy the right to a free press. What I am mindful of is that whereas a few countries continue to suppress the media and interfere in their work, a considerable number of countries appear to have made advances on that frontier.

The freedom of the press has afforded writers like me an opportunity to air our views without fear of retribution. Today, media houses are springing up all over. People feel much freer to say what they think. The radio stations are awash with so-called adroits who appear to know everything about everything. The beauty of free press is definitely a joy to behold. The fact though remains that there is a price to pay for this situation.

Soren Kierkegaard contends that, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use”. This situation can be seen in practice. There is a subtle desire of some to push the limits of free press beyond levels deemed acceptable. Such desire appears to percolate to the surface in what they write and say. Their efforts are fanned into flames by a section of society who tend to thrive on such stories. Examples to corroborate this position are well documented and libel claims are only a prognosis of the real issue.

The quandary is whether society has an insatiable desire for such stories and the media serves to satisfy that appetite or whether it is the media that creates an inkling for such stories and thereby obtains a following. The debate of who is doing what is one for another day.

Reflecting on the actions of the English Press before the vote for the World Cup host nations, one particular issue comes to mind. The Panorama investigation carried out by Andrew Jennings and screened on BBC ONE three days before the vote surely stands out. In this programme, it was alleged that three of the FIFA executive committee members (Cameroonian Issa Hayatou, Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz, and Brazilian Ricardo Teixeira), who were to decide on the 2018 winning bid were involved in the dirty tricks pulled by International Sports and Leisure (ISL). FIFA was portrayed as an inherently corrupt institution.

I do not argue against carrying out an investigation into the activities of any organisation. What astonishes me is the timing of the BBC's airing of the programme. Was it a deliberate attempt to boost ratings by exploiting the mood of the country as people appeared to foster the hopes of the World Cup returning 'home'? Was it a strategy adopted to intimidate the members of the committee into voting for England as an appeasement for their inquisition?

Another valid question was whether the BBC was preparing the British public for what was about to come? By portraying FIFA as an inherently corrupt institution, was there a covert motive to psyche the British people for the verdict to be delivered on Thursday? I dare further ask whether this was genius or downright inanity.

As would be expected, The BBC has endeavoured to defend itself against such charges. It is anyone's opinion whether to uphold their defence or not. My cardinal focus is whether it made an impact on the outcome of the voting or not.

A popular proverb states that when you have your hand in someone's mouth, you do not knock on their heads. Considering that we learn that the executive committee of FIFA were reminded of the intrusion and scrutiny of the English Press before the voting, is it right then to argue that they (the English) shot themselves in the foot? Should the Press take part of the blame for England's abysmal showing in the voting?

I would have personally loved to see England win the bid. You may want to disagree with me. You are perfectly entitled to your choice and I respect your position. In a show of munificence, I congratulate Russia for winning and extend commiserations to the losers.

If the premise of the English Press contributing to the loss of the bid can be upheld, this then may be re-affirming a particular belief. In my previous article on “The Ultimate Leak”, I asked why people pretend and conceal their covert motivations with overt behaviours that can be best described as akin to skulduggery. What I did advocate for though, was that people need to make their real intentions known in as fair and truthful a manner as possible. In hindsight, can we justify whether what the BBC did was simply to uphold the virtues of free press or it is foolishness in disguise. This debate would rage on for a generation.

We as a growing democracy need to be mindful of what we do and say. Today, we find ourselves engaged in constant and at times unwholesome debates in the media. We need to pause and ask ourselves whether we really understand the tenets of free press and whether we are upholding it or whether we have got the balance wrong and thereby misplaced our priorities. Just because it is free press does not mean we should not be circumspect in what we say and do. We need to question our motives and align them to our values as a people. Fanning tensions with a view to discredit and bring down governments and individuals at all cost would do very little to benefit us as a country. We surely need to pause and rethink our options and see where we go from here.

The commendable efforts and achievements of the majority of the press in rightly exploiting the avenue of free press must be lauded and applauded. This though does not preclude the fact that, there is a section or a minority whose pragmatic interpretation of the tenets of free press is questionable. Their interpretation borders on the doctrines of hyperbole and rather than doing much good they end up harming those they purport to inform. This medium is not for me to name and shame people and institutions but I am inclined to subscribe to the view that you would not struggle to find examples that fit the cup.

In whatever capacity you find yourself, whether the producer or the consumer of information from the press, you need to question whether what you are producing or consuming is a cherishable product of free press or a disguised form of foolishness. You are the best judge in this case. I rest my case here and would now proceed to complete the Part 2s of my articles on “Gambling – Addiction or Choice” and “Contemplations of an extra-marital affair: a didactic”.

Credit: Dr. Frank Robert Silverson
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