There are two aspects of freedom in news reporting, one of them is negative — the horrid consequences that follow when freedom is denied. The other is positive — the benefits that flow when freedom is respected.
In most of the arguments about press freedom, and they are numerous and voluminous; the emphasis is on the negative aspect, the arguments usually arise because some issue or some agency is threatening. To restrict free flow of information. Therefore the journalist’s defensive reaction is to specify and describe all the adverse consequences of such restriction.
There are many. There is the denial of information to citizens who need it to make intelligent decisions in public matters. There is the interference with the educational process which news media fosters across the total spectrum of its audience. There is the loss of restraint that publication imposes upon actions contrary to the public interest. There is the lack of edification that results from incapacity to report diverse aspects of our culture.
The positive side includes arguments that have been less voluminously developed, this is not surprising because what is wrong or threatening always receives more attention than what is right or promising.
Both arguments have been mentioned in the debate that has been running since 1970 in the United Nations educational, scientific, and cultural organization. Arrayed on one side of the debate are those nations that advocate state control of news media; on the other side are those states that advocate freedom for news media.
The arguments sometimes are theoretical and philosophical, but for advocates of freedom they are reinforced by the empirical evidence of the defects of state control over news in such authoritarian states as the soviet union. Thus the debate for us has focused more upon the negative aspects of control than upon the positive aspects of freedom.
Concern for national interest is a central issue in the arguments advanced by proponents of control. They contend that it is necessary to shape and manipulate the news as an instrument to promote economic development. This argument is particularly persuasive to the emerging nations of the third world that are struggling with severe economic problems.
These states also are susceptible to an argument that is real, though rarely articulated by them, that third world governments are too fragile to tolerate the challenging and robust reporting of free news media.
We can entertain some sympathy toward these two arguments without accepting their validity. We also can concede that our countering negative arguments — that controls over news are disastrous to a truly democratic society — have so far been less than totally persuasive to nations at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.
There is nothing to lose, therefore, and possibly something to gain by focusing upon the positive side of the argument, that substantial benefits accrue to the national interest when the decision is for freedom and against state interference. The benefits might be described as the dividends of freedom. A nation that chooses to permit free and independent news media generally can expect to find that its credibility is improved, its stability is increased, and its progress toward economic development is accelerated.
John Donne in his poem made famous by Ernest Hemingway proclaimed that “no man is an island insulated from the rest of mankind.” The same is true of states. Control of news media is an act of isolation among nations, it connotes secrecy and destroys confidence. By regulating the flow of information into a nation from the outside and the access to information inside by foreign journalists a nation forfeits its credibility.
In modern times first Russia and now China have relaxed their closed door policy gradually and so far incompletely. Both admit far more visitors than they had before and visits by foreign newsmen are common. Both have permitted trickles of news originated by foreign agencies to enter their countries.
The relaxation has not been thoughtless nor careless. Certainly it has not resulted from concession to any foreign pressure. It has come about because the rulers of those countries believed that such a relaxation was in their national interests. It was a recognition that the kind of tight control they had held over the flow of information in and out of their countries denied them the credibility which they found they needed to make the kind of progress they sought among the commonwealth of nations.
Records of nations that have protected the freedom of their news media are the best evidence that freedom is not a universal threat to political stability among nations. The United States is the premier example. For more than 200 years it has cherished a free press; it has weathered grave crises including a civil war and the peaceful deposition of a president and a vice president. And it is pertinent to recall that the United States started as a collection of colonies, won its nationhood in revolution, and ascended from poverty and weakness to wealth and power without sacrificing the freedom of its press.
Britain, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, and Germany and Japan since World War II have been foremost among nations with free news media and foremost among nations in political stability.
One of the reasons for this is that all have popular governments with rulers elected by a majority of the population. The news media act as a constant information conduit not only from the governing group down to the governed but also from the governed up to the governors. There is a safety valve effect here that allows grievances to be recognized. And adjusted before they lead to frustration and violence. Because there have been effective channels of communication in these countries there has not been the need to communicate discontent through riots, strikes, and violence as it is happening in Iran now.
There is a new buzzword that has come out of California since the referendum on Proposition 13. The word is “message” and political leaders who watched with some surprise as voters expressed their opposition to high taxes by approving the proposition quickly announced that they had “got the message.” They declared themselves ready to lead the campaign for lower taxes.
In Illinois last week Sen. Charles Percy received the scare of his political career. A virtually unknown challenger almost beat Percy and it was only by mounting a frenetic last minute drive that the senator saved his seat.
The day after the election Percy flew throughout the state expressing thanks to his friends and supporters. In the course of his trip he repeated over and over that he had “got the message” that voters were irritated by inflation, high taxes, excessive regulation, and senators who had not paid enough heed to their constituents.
How were the “messages” delivered? By the news media to be sure. Feelings were intense, resentment was strong, mounting frustration demanded release. Because there were news media free to publish and broadcast information that must have been distasteful to the holders of political power, relief was gained without violence. Two small incidents in a long, long list that have contributed to political stability in the United States.
The contention that news media must be controlled and coerced in order to promote economic development is contradicted by a considerable body of evidence that freedom to report and publish is actually the better way to enhance economic progress. Nations that subvert their news media to make them simply carriers of government propaganda usually find that they have great difficulty in obtaining foreign bank loans, attracting foreign investments or luring revenues from tourism. Lack of these elements is a serious handicap to any nation attempting to develop its economy.
Perhaps the most amazing record of the economic development of a backward country in the last century has been made by Japan. It all started when Commodore Perry opened the door to Japan in 1853. Since World War II, when the pace of progress has been the swiftest, Japan has had newspapers that rank at the top for freedom and independence.
Both Russia, which has far to go in its economic development, and China, which is even farther, have relaxed their restrictions against outside news agencies recently. But each is hampered by the lack of the kind of free flow of information that would accelerate their development beyond its present quickening pace.
The difficulty of China is described by Bohdan O. and Maria R. Szuprowicz in their book, Doing Business with the People’s Republic of China, published this year. “Most data released (about China) in recent years are simply percentage increases in production over some year in the 1960s for which no base data were published anyway . . . By far the largest percentage of those (Western businessmen responding to the authors questionnaires) indicated that lack of data about markets in China was the biggest single obstacle to further expansion of their trade activities with China.”
Similar remarks have been made relative to the controlled information flow in Russia.
An example would be a weekly report of the German Economic Research Institute which reported in December, 1977, that Russia publishes no balance of payment figures, so no one knows why it has shown a growing net indebtedness in hard currencies in recent years, or whether this indicates a passing problem or real trouble. Therefore, “this jump” in Soviet indebtedness has caused the West to ask questions about the ussr’s creditworthiness, to which, however, there can be no unequivocal, scientifically substantiated answer.
It is evident that a lack of access to information in a developing country can be a handicap. The example of the United States, on the other hand, demonstrates that the kind of openness practiced here is consistent with the kind of foreign capital investment developing nations require.
Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.
Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.
Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.
For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy