Thursday, June 18, 2009

How the new media revolution threatens press freedom

Some Western democracies slipped in the Index. The United States fell more than 20 places, mainly because of ... judicial action that is undermining the privacy of journalistic sources... trying to force them to disclose their confidential sources. Canada also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened source confidentiality, turning some journalists into “court auxiliaries.” France also slipped, mainly because of court-ordered searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and the introduction of new press offenses.
- RSF, 2005

A Finnish government working group on Wednesday proposed a number of increases police powers, including the right to force reporters to name sources during the preliminary investigation stage...

...The Finnish Union of Journalists slammed the proposal as a "brazen" attack on the media.

"The protection of sources is a cornerstone of a free media," Arto Nieminen, the chairman of the union, said in a statement.
- Helsinki Times, May 20, 2009

The draft law proposed by Italian Minister of Justice Angelino Alfano ... contains provisions that restrict journalists’ right to report on police investigations, and includes heavy punishments for breaching these restrictions.
IPI, June 15, 2009

I'm thinking about a particular incident. It concerned the closing address of the IPI World Congress which was given by the Tarja Halosen, the President of Finland. (Finland will shortly take over the presidency of the European Union: so despite the small size of her country, Halosen's opinions, priorities, and positions are of no small consequence to Europe and the world).

In her talk, the Finnish president cited some new media developments as cause for concern:
There is growing concern over the violent features of the material, links and chats distributed over the Internet. Some studies show that violence on the Internet is harsher, heavier and more brutal than on television – and viewers also perceive it as more real.
The president then turned to discuss the promise of an Internet that
....opens up possibilities for civil society globally and provides a means for empowerment. It can capture people’s minds and get them involved with social change, civic action, ad hoc mobilisations, cultural experiments, the sharing of information and so on. My dream is that this positive power of media could be used to make peoples’ life and the world better.
On one hand, new media has given rise to largely speculative fears that link extremely rare but iconic events -- school shootings, abductions -- to our familiar daily interactions with the online world. On the other hand, the whole discussion of new media has given rise to some wishful thinking. So on one hand we have the fears, and on the other, the Dream. These worries and hopes are the basis for new questions that people spend more and more time debating. Can anything be more important than what happens inside our own homes or the promise of a new technology?

I think so. What Finland's president said -- and what she did not say to members of the world press assembled in Helsinki -- provides a view into how the new media revolution may pose a threat to press freedom.

Whereas fears concerning the Internet tend to be personal, the risks these times pose to journalism itself concern power relations in a society that extend beyond the individual. Issues that are not so personal. For example, how laws relate to the process of gathering news. Maybe it appears as if technological change offers the illusion of an escape not only from the stodgy old institutions of traditional media, but those problems the institutions of our free societies have evolved to confront?

But if those problems have not gone away, we are probably focusing on all the wrong questions.

What are the right questions? Since the Enlightenment, it has been generally agreed that the most important questions concerning the press concern its relation to the state. The press is the only non-governmental institution mentioned in the United States Constitution. As the president of Finland noted in her address, the press has long been regarded as a Fourth Estate, distinct from other social institutions. In short, the press has rights -- a shorthand for saying the people have the right to a free press. For example, in free countries is is agreed that -- except for certain exceptional circumstances -- journalists should have the right to protect their sources.

I disagree with the Finnish president about the dangers. The big dangers have little to do with the more offensive forms of content available on the Internet. At the same time, the promise of the Internet to make a better society remains largely speculative.

This is a time of crisis. With news organizations disappearing, the industry in disarray, a situation has arisen in which field of journalism is simply preoccupied with survival; many of the the societal structures that customarily defend the press have been disrupted.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in recent years there have even been attempts made to curtail press freedoms in Western countries. There will always be people who fervently wish the news media would just go away. By and large, those who fit this description fall into two groups: One composed of people who have wealth or power and fear losing it. The other consists of people who believe they have the ultimate truth and that nobody should be allowed -- publicly at least -- to challenge their beliefs. We are at a unique moment in history when members of either group could, with relative ease, gain the upper hand in their efforts to strangle a free press. This is the great danger of our times.

As it happens, in Finland, as the IPI delegates met, legislation was being considered that appeared to be "motivated by a desire to protect the elite from media scrutiny"according to Arto Nieminen of the FUJ.

After her address to the press delegates, Tim, an officer of the International Press Institute stood up. Tim had thought to ask the president not about her new media fears and dreams, but a question related to the age-old threat to a free press. These are my jots, based on the exchange that followed:
Timothy Spence, IPI: Confidentiality of sources is considered a foundational value of press freedom. Do you support new legislation your government is preparing that would force reporters to name sources?

President Tarja Halosen: Those persons who might be interviewed should also have protection. I hope the government will find a good balance between the two things. Even if the court says there is no reason, in the minds of the people there might be still something wrong with the person. I think when the ideas of the freedom of the person .... lets try to balance them.
Surprisingly, especially considering the context of her appearance (the meeting of a press freedom group), the president did not seem to recognize the issue she was being asked about. Tim, a seasoned newspaper reporter, tried again.
Timothy Spence, IPI: I have a follow up... My question is more is aimed at what this would do to journalists? Are you concerned that this could force the courts to release their notes?

President Tarja Halosen: I think you have to take both sides. To also think about those whose names are mentioned. I think I'm not ready to answer in detail. I would refer you to my Minister of Justice. It's always a question of balance.
In confronting the challenges posed by the Internet, we imagine all kinds of bogymen. Such were the kinds of concerns the president had come prepared to address. Of course, the media itself has played a role in stirring up such fears. Citizens naturally fear for their children, and politicians believe responding to these concerns is a high priority.

But the age-old questions? It was as if the Finnish president had forgotten about those.

At a time when the traditional news media are in crisis, we should guard against allowing enthusiasm or fears about new media to obscure genuine threats to a free press. Press freedom organizations such as IPI, RSF, or CPJ are more necessary at this time than ever before. Certainly, the age-old questions they ask have never been more timely.

Jotman live-blogged the following panel discussions at the IPI World Congress:

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