Freedom of the Press

Press Freedom quote

It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than that of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

 But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a ban of coverage on Rappler News, a news social media sharply critical of the President.  More than ten cases were filed against Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief editor and her staff – cases that many perceive are at the instigation of the president.  The President threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest his media critics.  The ban on Rappler has been in effect for fourteen months when its correspondents filed a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end the ban.  The petition argues that the coverage ban violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.  This is now a significant press freedom test case.  Should Christians care?

Christians should very much care.  Intimately linked with freedom of the press is freedom of religion.  Because Christians care very much about the latter, they should care as much for freedom of the press.  The battle for freedom of religion was a long and bloody history.  The American Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution in England.  They founded New England in America.  America became the birthplace of the concept of separation of church and state.  It was the Baptists who had led in the advocacy, and had suffered most in the cause, of freedom of religion.  18th century Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller summarizes the Baptist position thus,

In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians.  Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defense… The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account.[1]

Freedom of religion can only be sustained where there is freedom to express oneself.  This is where freedom of the press matters most.  It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than those of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.  There is a 1964 landmark legal case in the US Supreme Court known as New York Times vs. Sullivan.  The New York Times published a report that ultimately was proved false.  L.B. Sullivan, the city official who was the aggrieved party, sued the newspaper and a local jury awarded him a big sum.  It was raised to the Supreme Court which reversed the local court.  It established that even false statements by the press should not be liable to prosecution, if the statement is made in good faith, and not out of malice.  Establishing malice made it almost unprosecutable.  But this right to make a false statement in good faith must be protected if the basic right of public discourse is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.[2]

This is similar to freedom of religion in that even those who teach false doctrines should have protected freedom to do so.  Even as Christians detest what is taught, we counter it with the truth of the Scriptures.  But to prosecute religious teachers because their teachings are deemed as damning will only come back later to the teachers of the truth.  False teachers will have their judgment from God.  But let society have freedom for all religious discourses.  That way, truth will have its converts.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

Using the enormous power of the presidency to harass his critics in the press is demeaning of the President and of his office.  He does not have the principled stance of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who said: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

These are trying times to endure a presidency that has lost decency.

[1] The Works of Andrew Fuller (First published in 1841; Banner of Truth edition, 2007): 829

[2] Michael Trachtman, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life: 162-165

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