At the beginning of the year 2016, the freedom of the press is yet another value that we thought to be at its all-time high, but then we suddenly were brutally disillusioned. And this is not only about the regions of the world where the freedom of the press has always been a big problem, where journalists often risk their safety and lives to report the news. This is also about developed societies, in which the freedom of the press seemed to be a sure thing. And yet, recently we have seen an increase in the number of threats to this elemental freedom, which should set off all the alarm bells. Once again, we have to turn our gaze back to our own courtyard to make sure that human rights and freedoms, which have been engraved (just like this article’s title) in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are still fully respected in our own homes.
The new Polish government, which took power in November, has since passed a series of laws that were met with opposition both domestically and internationally. One of them is the new media law, which gave the government direct control over the choice of the executive posts of the country’s public media. Subsequently, they were given to people directly related to the current ruling party Law and Justice, including a party’s former member who is now the general director of public TV. Since the changes were made, many journalists who are not affiliated with the ruling party have been fired from public media companies and many people heavily criticise the new programmes, which are often sympathetic towards the new government and present ‘uncomfortable’ news in a more positive (or at least limited) manner. The news manipulations are being caught by the watchful eye of Internet users and have become a source of many memes and jokes. However, Poland has become yet another EU country in which the government exerts influence on media on a scale that should not be seen in a developed European democracy.
On March 4th, after a court order, the control over Turkish opposition newspaper Zaman has been seized by the state. Yet another one in a series of extremely worrying actions in Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the move has been heavily criticised as an attack against the freedom of the press and democracy. In response, people protested against the takeover in front of the newspaper’s offices in Istanbul, but were later dispersed by the police, which used tear gas and rubber bullets. After the takeover, the newspaper resumed operations. However, the new issues are clearly pro-government and leave no doubt that President Erdoğan is successful in silencing his opponents. Meanwhile, he has threatened to shut down the land’s highest court, which recently ordered the release of two journalists who were detained after publishing information about the government’s involvement in sending arms to Syria. One would expect that the European Union firmly opposes any measures taken against free press, especially in its neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, most of the European leaders have limited themselves to only expressing their worries, as they do not want to anger President Erdoğan, who, after the recent agreement, is supposed to solve the ‘politically inconvenient’ refugee crisis for them. Once again, our values have to give way to short-term political gains.
It’s hard to keep up with Donald Trump’s controversial ideas and, because of that, some of them do not reach public opinion. Recently he said that, as president, he would allow libel lawsuits against journalists who write negative stories against politicians. Now, some would say that journalists often slander people’s reputation with false stories and take no responsibility for their actions. Although that might occasionally happen, creating a possibility for a journalist to be sued for large sums of money because they wrote an article that puts a politician in a bad light sounds more like an autocratic regime than a developed liberal democracy. This is especially worrying because those words come from a person who is likely to be a candidate for one of the most powerful political posts in the world.
On Friday, March 11th, at two faculties of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam – HvA), the newest issue of the university magazine Folia has been removed until Monday. The reason? On the following weekend, the university was open to prospective students, while the issue’s cover features an article called ‘De Boobie Bible: feminism anno 2016’ and a picture of naked breasts. The article is about the Boobie Bible project, organised by a feminist organisation called FemCom and aimed at raising awareness about the sexualisation of women bodies. When asked, the chairman of one of the two faculties, Jean Tillie, said that a magazine with naked women on the cover is not within the context of the open days during which young people come to HvA to make one of the most important decisions of their lives. In response, Folia, student union ASVA, and many people criticised the decision, while on Saturday, an UvA student, Matilda Medard (whose breasts are on the cover), handed out the magazine in one of the HvA buildings while being topless. Some will argue that the situation has become bigger than it should have and that it’s hard to call it censorship, while others will say that there should be no room for limiting the freedom of expression. One thing is certain: in the year 2016, a university in Amsterdam, in a country that takes the 4th place in the World Press Freedom index, is the last place one would expect to have public morality as an argument in a discussion about the freedom of the press.
All in all, some will say that the above examples might be worrying, but certainly not proof that the freedom of the press is violated around the world, and some might agree with some of the decisions presented above. However, the freedom of the press is one of the key ‘checks and balances’ in any democratic society, and it is citizens’ first and last line of defence against aspirations of those in power to limit personal rights and freedoms. As such, every violation of it, be it legal threats against journalists, attacks on media’s independence, or censorships of a university magazine, should be pointed out and immediately opposed. In the 21st century, things like traditional values, national and state interest, short-term political interest, and public morality should not be used as arguments in a discussion about the freedom of the press, especially not in societies that claim or aspire to be developed liberal democracies. And that is why the recent events should set off the alarm bells; all the aforementioned examples are from countries that were supposed to have free and independent media, or were thought to be on the right track to achieve them. Therefore, the current situation seems like a huge step backwards. The freedom of the press is certainly not dead, and, with the existence of the Internet, it would be extremely difficult to reach that point. However, we cannot take it for granted and should always fight for it.