By MARK PEARSON
For the past two weeks I have been in Sri Lanka, where my speaking and interview schedule has been arranged by Dr Sugath Senarath, my co-author of our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015).
Professor Mark Pearson (@journlaw) at the Sri Lanka Press Council event. Photo: Julie Pearson
The highlight was my address to the Sri Lankan Press Council last Wednesday (August 31) on the topic “Designing free expression models in communication with special reference to Commonwealth countries – a mindful Australian perspective”.
I offer the full text of the address to you here. [Please note that sections are excerpted from earlier work, including The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (co-authored with Mark Polden, Allen & Unwin, 2015), Mindful Journalism (reference above) and my unpublished 2013 address to the Timor Leste National Congress for Journalists.]
Press Commissioner, Press Council Chair and board members, co-author and host Dr Sugath Senarath, academic and media colleagues, journalism and media students and young reporters and other honored guests…
Thank you sincerely for having me here today to talk about the important topic of free expression – a fundamental feature in a working democracy.
It is important that all citizens – particularly journalists and politicians – have a grasp of the principles of free expression, media freedom and their historical context.
Origins of free expression
The free expression of certain facts and views has always been a dangerous practice, with countless people put to death for expressing religious or political views throughout history. Many more have been imprisoned, tortured or punished for such expression. Socrates in 399 BCE elected to drink a poison—hemlock—rather than recant his philosophical questioning (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986, p. 9). The history of freedom of expression is as much a history of censorship, because when free expression has been threatened, intellectuals have been called upon to defend it. It was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in about 1450 and the massive growth in the publishing industry over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the form of newsbooks and the activities of ‘pamphleteers’ that first triggered repressive laws, and then the movement for press freedom (Feather, 1988: 46). (It is interesting that these individuals were the forerunners of the citizen journalists and bloggers we know today—often highly opinionated and quick to publish speculation and rumour.)
Delivering the Sri Lankan Press Council address in Colombo. Photo: Julie Pearson
The pamphleteers took umbrage at government attempts to impose a licensing system for printers from the mid-sixteenth century (Overbeck, 2001: 34). Political philosopher and poet John Milton took aim at this in 1644 with Areopagitica, a speech to the parliament appealing for freedom of the presses. He went on to utter the famous free speech principle: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’ (Patrides, 1985: 241). Milton inscribed his name on the title page of his unlicensed work, in defiance of the law he was criticising. The notion of free expression had spawned its offspring: press freedom.
Part of Milton’s argument centred on the ‘marketplace of ideas’—the belief that truth will win over falsehood when the two compete. This proposition of a contest between truth and falsehood was often used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to justify freedom of expression (Smith, 1988: 31). It continues in public discourse today.
Two of the co-authors of ‘Mindful Journalism’, Professor Mark Pearson (left) and Dr Sugath Senarath from the University of Colombo.
Philosopher and political theorist John Locke took up the fight after Milton’s death. Under his social contract theory, governments are there to serve the people, and central to this is freedom of expression (Overbeck, 2001: 36).
Like Milton, Locke campaigned for the end of the English printing licence system, which expired in 1694 (Overbeck, 2001: 36). Those to speak out against restrictions on press freedom at the turn of the eighteenth century included novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe, who wrote ‘An Essay Upon the Regulation of the Press’ around 1704 (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986: 62), and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon who, under the pen name ‘Cato’, wrote a series of letters about freedom in the 1720s (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986: 64–8).
England’s foremost philosopher of the late nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, articulated the need for free speech in a liberal democratic society in On Liberty, first published in 1859 (Mill, 1991). He wrote:
The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. (1991: 20)
Mill’s On Liberty built on Milton’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ to define the boundaries of freedom of expression in the modern nation-state. One of the great legal minds of the eighteenth century, Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, had a great impact on the evolution of press freedom by defining it as the absence of ‘previous restraints upon publications’ (Blackstone, 1765–69: 151–2).
Blackstone’s notion of ‘prior restraint’ has underscored the development of media law in the United States. The idea was that freedom of the press could tolerate no restrictions before publication, such as licensing and taxes that had been imposed in Britain, but that the law should take its course after publication to punish those who abused this freedom. Publications should be tax and licence free, but subject to laws like defamation and contempt once published. In both Britain and its colonies, a common weapon for silencing the press had been the crime of ‘seditious libel’—any serious criticism of government or the Crown, whether or not the criticism was truthful. William Murray, Lord Chief Justice and Earl of Mansfield (1704–93), had coined the expression ‘the greater the truth, the greater the libel’ (Whitton, 1998), ensuring that truth would not stand up as a defence to seditious libel.
Despite these restrictions, basic press freedom had taken hold in Britain. Some thought the press had gone too far. In this context, the expression ‘the Fourth Estate’ was coined. At that time, there were said to be three ‘estates of the realm’—the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Lords Common. In 1790, English statesman Edmund Burke is said to have pointed to the press gallery in parliament and said: ‘There are three estates in Parliament but in the reporters’ gallery yonder sits a fourth estate more important far than they all.’ (Inglebart, 1987: 143).
The libertarian ideals on which press freedom is based were not confined to Britain. The movement for civil rights and individual liberties spread throughout Western Europe during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, epitomised by the French Revolution in 1789, leaving a legacy of press freedom throughout that region and its colonial outposts.
In Western democratic societies, journalists often take their liberties for granted. But there has never been utterly unshackled free speech or a completely free media: we operate on an international and historical continuum of free expression through to censorship. It is only over the past half-century that the notion of free expression and a free media has gained traction on a broader international scale.
Free expression internationally
There is no enforceable worldwide agreement on free expression as a fundamental human right, although some nations and regions have entrenched free expression in their constitutions. The key international document is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in 1948 enshrined free expression at Article 19:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
At face value, this statement seems to give all the world’s citizens a right to free expression. While a declaration of a lofty goal, it has many limitations, as we will see.
Stronger protections came internationally in 1966 when the United Nations (UN) adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prompting a series of binding treaties. The covenant introduces a right to free expression for the world’s citizens, again at Article 19.
However, the right is limited because the covenant also recognises duties, responsibilities and restrictions covering respect for the rights and reputations of others, and the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals. Add to this the fact that many countries either have not ratified the covenant, or have not incorporated its provisions to make them part of their domestic law—as in the case of Australia.
At least three major democratic English-speaking nations in addition to the United States have bills of rights enshrining free speech. British and European liberal ideals found their way into the wording of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the US Constitution in 1789 and its Bill of Rights in 1791. Central to the Bill of Rights was the First Amendment to the US Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
US government attempts to restrain publications in the national interest have usually failed on First Amendment grounds.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), like the US First Amendment, recognises freedom of the press as part of section 2(b), which confers upon every citizen the following freedoms: ‘freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication’. The United Kingdom and New Zealand legislation does not mention media freedom, opting instead for the broader term ‘freedom of expression’.
New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, enacted in 1990, states at section 14: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form’. In 2011, the New Zealand Supreme Court found that the right protected Valerie Morse, an anti-war protester who burned her country’s flag during a dawn memorial service in Wellington. Her conviction for offensive behaviour was set aside.
Despite this, there are many nations with such a free expression clauses in their constitutions where their governments have chosen to ignore them to advance their own interests or to prevent scrutiny of their actions. This has sometimes led to the harassment, assault, imprisonment and even murder of journalists. I note that the Sri Lankan Constitution also enshrines “freedom of speech and expression including publication” and it is encouraging that your new government has taken some first steps towards honouring that right which appears to have been neglected in recent decades. The recent passage of a Right to Information Act is one such encouraging step. Of course, such freedom of information instruments in many countries are ineffective because of the large numbers of exemptions to the release of documents available to governments, the cost of making applications, and the glacial speed with which bureaucracies approve requests for government information – using refusals and appeals to wear down the journalists rightfully seeking facts and information on behalf of the citizenry.
For many truth-seekers and truth-tellers, the commitment to free expression has taken the form of physical injury or danger—even death. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists more than 1200 journalists confirmed as killed in the course of their work since 1992, including 27 in 2016 to date. As a former correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, I must highlight the fact that the world is watching the new Sri Lankan government to see how enthusiastically it pursues and prosecutes those responsible for the murder of 19 journalists in this country since 1992 – criminals who it seems have been able to conduct their assassination of this democracy’s messengers with complete impunity. I suggest the Press Council might consider keeping this issue on the agenda in the interests of media freedom and as a tribute to those who have paid the ultimate price for exercising their Constitutional right to free expression.
Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, many others have died, suffered violence or have been imprisoned for what they report. Some have suffered in other ways, as the victims of lawsuits by those who set out to gag them.
Australia’s early history was marked by considerable censorship of its media, although an early battle between Governor Darling and the Chief Justice in 1827 prevented the licensing of newspapers.
Australia has no equivalent to the US First Amendment enshrining freedom of the press. However, in recent decades the High Court of Australia has recognised an implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government.
Press systems and ethical frameworks are on the agenda in all societies, and we are challenged to accommodate free expression and its close relative, press freedom, within new regulatory, technological and cultural contexts.
Recent inquiries into media regulation in the United Kingdom (Leveson, 2012), Australia (Finkelstein, 2012) and New Zealand (Law Commission, 2013) have recommended major changes to the regulation of media corporations and the ethical practices of journalists. Their motivation stems, at least ostensibly, from public angst—and subsequent political pressure—over a litany of unethical breaches of citizens’ privacy over several years in the United Kingdom, culminating in the News of the World scandal and the subsequent revelations at the Leveson Inquiry (2012), all of which had an undoubted ripple effect in Australia.
Two major inquiries into the Australian news media in 2011 and 2012 prompted a necessary debate over the extent to which rapidly converging and globalised news businesses and platforms might require statutory regulation at a national level. Four regulatory models emerged—a News Media Council backed by recourse to the contempt powers of courts; a super self-regulatory body with legislative incentives to join; a strengthened Australian Press Council policing both print and online media; and a government-appointed Public Interest Media Advocate.
All proposals for any such government intervention with media freedom by such a controlling body by a Press Council or News Council were rejected after considerable pressure from media organisations as anathema to free expression.
Both inquiries acknowledged—and rejected—the notion of a revamped Australian Press Council, proposed in various submissions and in appearances by its then chair. The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 as a newspaper industry ‘self-regulatory’ body—a purely voluntary entity with no powers under law.) Nevertheless, both during and after these two reports, and with new support from most of its members, the Press Council moved quickly to ramp up its purview and powers to address many of its documented shortcomings, such as the refusal of some member newspapers to publish its findings and the threat of withdrawal of funding from others (Simpson, 2012). It locked its members into four-year commitments and established an independent panel to advise on a review of content standards.
At the same time as these changes to media regulation were being proposed, several reformulations of existing media laws were being considered by state, territory and federal governments and their respective law-reform bodies. They covered such topics as privacy law, media classification, intellectual property, cyber-bullying, shield laws and national security laws. Of these, new shield laws have subsequently been introduced in most Australian jurisdictions. Media law and regulation constitute a field subject to continual scrutiny and change, which makes it all the more important for students and professional communicators to keep pace with developments.
It is noteworthy that the self-regulatory institution journalists fear most – more than the Press Council and other self-regulation tribunals, is the ABC’s weekly program Media Watch, which was first screened in 1989. Its website promotes it as follows: ‘Everyone loves it until they’re on it’ (www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/). Criticised for being sometimes trite, and often bitchy, Media Watch has exposed some of the nation’s most spectacular ethical breaches over the past two decades. These include blatant instances of plagiarism and privacy invasion and, most famously, an exposé of secret payments being made to talkback radio stars for their endorsement of products and services without the knowledge of their listeners. While Media Watch itself has no sanctions available, the power of the program lies in the fact that ethical breaches and glaring errors are screened on national television, when journalists know their colleagues are watching. The ultimate tool of media self-regulation can indeed be the media itself!
There are several ways journalists in other countries considering regulatory models can learn from this recent experience in Australia.
- Comparisons can be dangerous. Even in a democracy with a long history of relatively free expression politicians and governments will seek out and seize any opportunity to regulate the media. International comparisons can be dangerous because we operate within different political and cultural frameworks. When they were arguing for their media reforms, Ministers cited RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, using the argument that Finland remained in number one position there despite having a statutory mechanism for its press regulation. They failed to mention that Finland also has a section in its Constitution guaranteeing free expression and the free flow of information so all laws are formed and applied against that backdrop. It also lacks the hundreds of other media laws that impact on free expression in other countries like Australia.
- Beware of regulation creep. Existing laws such as defamation and contempt that apply to all citizens go a long way towards controlling media behavior. I have seen few serious ethical breaches that could not be handled by the existing laws. Once media laws have been introduced it is hard to wind those laws back to re-establish eroded freedoms. Australia passed more than 60 new anti-terror laws after the September 2001 attacks on the US – many impacting on the media – and few of those have been wound back. Media regulation is hard to undo because governments like to have that power.
- Don’t trade press freedom. Well meaning journalists and academics are sometimes willing to sacrifice media freedom because of the misbehavior of some media personnel. When you offer governments new powers to control the misbehaviour of some elements in the media you need to accept that those same powers might be used against you at some later stage.
- Beware de facto licensing. There is the temptation to issue journalists with accreditation and registration in actual or de facto licensing schemes. While journalists might like the idea of carrying an official card with privileged access, the narrow defining of journalists and journalism by governments presents a real danger to free expression because it privileges some citizens over others as communicators. This gives those issuing and revoking such licenses influence over the message itself. It is even less appropriate in a new era of blogging and social media because the nature of news and journalism is even harder to define. Citizens might become reporters temporarily because of the scale of an event or issue or on an ongoing basis in a narrow field of interest that might momentarily become of broader public interest. It is inappropriate that they should have to seek registration or licensing as a journalist or that they should be punished for reporting without such official licence. Rather, their words or actions should be subject only to the communication limitations placed on all citizens, and in a working democracy they should be limited to only extreme breaches.
- Judge a proposed law by its ultimate possible sanction. The best test when trying to gauge the potential impact of new media regulations is not the assurances of their proponents that they will be used only rarely and only in extreme cases, or perhaps not used against journalists. The real test is to look at the ultimate maximum sanctions available and if these involve the potential jailing or fining of journalists then they are anathema to press freedom in a democracy.
- Media freedom is above politics. Media regulation was certainly a long overdue debate in Australia, but it was politicised from the outset which undermined the likelihood of the implementation of any of the proposals. Some political parties supported tougher regulation of the media because they had been the target of adverse coverage. A basic human right like free expression should be above politics in a democracy, yet most governments will strive to limit it.
- Media freedom is above commercial interest. Opponents of media regulation need to be careful they are not being seen as simply protecting their own commercial enterprises. Criticism of the recommendations by the larger Australian media groups on free expression grounds – particularly by Murdoch executives – were dismissed as a defence of their vested interests (Meade and Canning, 2012). It helps to recruit other senior intellectuals in defence of media freedom – including academics, business leaders and other public intellectuals.
- Be wary of ethics codes imposed by governments. Too often governments use ethics codes as a Trojan Horse to push through tougher restrictions on journalists. Ethical codes should be SELF regulatory systems, not legally enforceable instruments carrying potential fines and jail terms.
- Training and education in law and ethics is crucial. Media outlets need to be more pro-active in developing better in-house processes for assessing ethical decisions and in explaining those decisions to their audiences. All reforms will, of course, need to be supplemented with better training of journalists about their rights and responsibilities and broader education of ordinary citizens to raise their understanding of the important role of the media in a democracy.
- Educate the community about free expression and a free media. The constitutional right to press freedom and free expression need to be part of every school’s civics curriculum and media organisations need to remind their audiences of this constitutional right and its important history at every opportunity.
Just as important as external regulatory and legal systems are the internal processes of journalists’ decision-making – their internal ‘moral compasses’. I have explored this phenomenon in developing the concept of ‘mindful journalism’ with colleagues Shelton Gunaratne and Sugath Senarath in a recent book – Mindful Journalism – published by Routledge in New York last year.
We explore the possibilities of applying some of Buddhism’s core principles to the secular phenomenon of journalism. It must be accepted that Buddhist practices such as ‘mindfulness’ and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been embraced by the cognitive sciences in adapted therapeutic ways (Segal et al 2012).
Each of the constituent steps of the Noble Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling – whether that be by a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon news and current affairs.
We do not propose a definitive fix-all solution to the shortcomings in journalism ethics or their regulation. Rather, ‘mindful journalism’ is an acknowledgment that the basic teachings of one of the world’s major religions can offer guidance in identifying a common – and secular – moral compass that might inform our journalism practice as technology and globalization place our old ethical models under stress. Media coverage can be vastly improved with the application of such principles – working towards a journalism of wisdom and compassion.
One of the problems with emerging citizen journalism and news websites is that their proponents do not necessarily ascribe to traditional journalists’ ethical codes. In a global and multicultural publishing environment the challenge is to develop models that might be embraced more broadly than a particular country’s repackaging of a journalists’ code. However, codes of ethics have often failed to work effectively in guiding the ethics of the traditional journalists for whom they were designed, let alone the litany of new hybrids including citizen journalists, bloggers, and the avid users of other emerging news platforms. Core human moral principles from key classical teachings like the Noble Eightfold Path could form the basis of a more relevant and broadly applicable model for the practice of ‘mindful journalism’.
The recent international inquiries triggered by poor journalism ethical practices have demonstrated that journalism within the libertarian model appears to have lost its moral compass and we need to explore new ways to recapture this. We should educate journalists, serious bloggers and citizen journalists to adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary accommodating a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. They would be prompted to pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their audiences. Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so.
Journalists must tell uncomfortable truths for the benefit of society and for the proper functioning of democracies. Politicians particularly need to have thick skins in recognition of the transparency and accountability of the public positions they hold. Before they attack the media they need to reflect upon whether they are acting through craving, attachment or ego.
Even the Buddha allowed for such uncomfortable truths to be spoken. In the Abhaya Sutta, the Buddha addressed Prince Abhaya on the qualities of Right Speech. He related to the prince six criteria for deciding what is worth saying. The third represents how the mindful journalist might approach such criticism of public figures:
 “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.
Mindful journalists should strive to get their timing correct, but there is no doubt that painful truths sometimes must be spoken. This requires reflection, meditation and insight in the planning and execution of a story to help alleviate suffering. A functioning democracy requires that such unendearing and disagreeable statements sometimes be made about our fellow citizens – particularly those entrusted with the public purse and special powers. It is no less than the role of the Fourth Estate to fulfil this function, and it is heartening to see that Sri Lanka is again investing in the fundamental freedoms that allow journalists to do so. I am sure the Sri Lankan Press Council can play an important role in advocating for press freedom and encouraging a robust journalism of truth, wisdom and compassion.
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.
© Mark Pearson 2016