Media freedom and people’s rights | Sunday Observer

Media freedom and people’s rights

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

(Excerpted from the keynote speech by Kalakeerthi Dr. Edwin Ariyadasa presented at the Cooperative Conference on Asian Press Councils held on October 30 in Colombo)

The civilized world grieves at the loss of the dedicated Media Person, the 60 – year - old Saudi Arabian Journalist Jamal Khashoggi under hideous and utterly repulsive circumstances.

His intimate associate Robert Lacey – British historian - writer-bemoans his friend Khashoggi – this way;

“Why Jamal? How could you stride so confidently into that Saudi Consulate in a foreign land, knowing the hazards that might lie inside?”

With the launch of the massive effort of Investigative Journalism that came in the slip-stream of this devastating loss, we could turn to our main topic.

The yearning and search for media freedom, goes far back into history - to the early days of human evolution.

In the dawn of human civilization, the idea of ‘Freedom of Speech’ was not generally known to the masses of that time. Those proto-human tribes obeyed the leaders, unquestioningly.

In a witty but disturbing statement, the well-known British Philosopher Earl Bertrand Russell has this to say: “When an impasse was reached, our ancestors no doubt settled the matter by trial of strength. Once you dispatch your interlocutor he no longer contradicts you”.

Simply put, this is what Philosopher Bertrand Russell meant: “In those far off days if someone questioned the tribal leader, the questioner was done away with. The logic was not complex at all, when a questioner is put an end to, he will no longer ask questions”.

But, the advanced system is to pursue the discussion freely to arrive at an agreed conclusion.

This ‘tribal’ (Autocratic) form of communication, prevailed at the level of animal ‘packs’ and at the level of flocks of birds, as well.

We could take a look for instance at the organizational level of the chimpanzee society. The lady primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Lawick–Goodall is world renowned for her sustained study of the lifestyle of the Chimpanzees. For 55 long years, she has conducted her research focusing on the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees. Dr. Goodall has pursued her work with such unshaken commitment, that she is reputed as the only human to be accepted by Chimpanzee Society. I admire this lady of 84 years, especially, for the revelations she has made of the communications system of the chimpanzees - a species that is said to possess brains extremely similar to those of human beings.

The leader of the pack is the communications chief of the group. All the members of the Chimpanzee community obey the leader. Even if the members come upon luscious leaves, they would not taste them, until the ‘Boss’ gives the order ‘Go ahead and eat’.

They never go counter to the decrees of the Leader. However, Dr. Goodall in her prolonged studies has come upon a young chimp, Mike, who disregarded the orders of the Chief, and tried to usurp his role.

The Communications, outcome of this Study, points, once again, to autocracy – a dictatorship’.

In the early eras of human progress, the format of governance was largely hierarchical. That kind of communication is autocratic. The person at the top (King, Monarch, Pharaoh) would communicate to officials and ordinary citizens in a totalitarian – dictatorial style.

The Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who represented one of the oldest ruling dynasties on Earth, had their directives sent to the people, in the form of orders that could not be disobeyed on any account. Their orders were written by learned scribes. All the royal edicts had a standard prefatory statement;

“This was said by the Pharaoh

Thus was it written down

So shall it be done’’

The ancient administrative system of Sri Lanka too had a hierarchical format. The orders were handed down on a graded scale from the top.

The topmost position was occupied by the King. He would order the highest officer next to him-the Prime Minister, or Disawa.

Even if the Royal Order from above was not quite to his liking, the Disawa could never turn round and say Ó King, I cannot agree with this decree’.

If he disregarded this Royal Order, downright, it may not be too good for his health. But, fortunately, in this hierarchical system, there is a built-in safeguard. He could always pass it down to the Officer, who is in the lower level to him.

In this graded social order, the ultimate person who will bear the burden, is the grassroots level person.

In the local communications network in Sri Lanka, it is this so called grassroots level person, who built those massive religious edifices the astounding hydro cultural constructions - the tanks, reservoirs, complex canal systems-while looking after the management and the maintenance of rural cultivation processes. All this was done, in terms of the orders from above.

But, in the long history of such ‘Hierarchical’ ruling systems there was occasionally an enlightened Monarch, who would, allow the governed to say their say about his rule. The masses will assemble in the Royal courtyard and inform the ruler beseechingly what they needed.

Those ‘Humane’ rulers, on the Royal Balcony, would see that his subjects were provided what they yearned for.

There were no other forms of media, than those rare audiences with the Ruling Divinity. (In ancient times, the King was attributed divine qualities)

History records, several instances, when certain monarchs, resorted to systems, to enable the subjects to keep him informed of their grievances.

Our national chronicles quote an occasion, when a ruler had a ‘bell of justice’ set up. Any subject, troubled by an injustice or a grievance, could ring the ‘bell of justice’ whenever he needed – either during daytime or at night.

Others resorted to yet another stratagem. They would roam the residential areas in the night, in disguise, to obtain clues of dissatisfaction, the subjects harboured.

In those far off days, there were no formats that could be termed ‘Media’.

In such earlier cultures, that were fabulously advanced, like those of Rome and Greece, the only method available to the masses for the expression of their views, was the Agora, the market place.

Even at such places, if the views expressed were critical of the governing elites, death could be meted out to the dissident as due punishment.

Socrates is the classic case in point. Those in power, found his views to be corrupting the youth and he was put to death by drinking poison. Historically, Greece is credited as the land in which Democracy originated as a principle of governance. Pericles who ruled Athens, virtually as its uncrowned King endowed the concept of Democracy upon mankind. But, even there, at a time when only extremely limited forms of media were available, Socrates had to pay with his life for ‘media’ misuse.

But, objectively viewed, the earliest form of Media freedom emerged in the United States of America.

The US, came into being, as the first colony of the British Empire, to declare independence from Imperial rule.

When the colonial Americans broke away from their mother country – The United Kingdom – they adopted on March, 4, 1789, one of the oldest national constitutions. On December 15, 1791, Ten Amendments to the constitution were effected.

These are known collectively as the ‘Bills of Rights. The first among these Articles reads this way: “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 redress of grievances”.

This still remains the classic authoritative pronouncement that unambiguously indicates that freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom of Assembly should be constitutionally safeguarded in the USA.

However, there is a significant and stray instance when some rebellious elements forced King John to curb his autocratic ways by signing ‘The Magna Carta’ in June 1215, (Great Charter) defining the limitations of the Monarch’s authority over the freedom of his subjects. (Incidentally, quite recently, there was an attempt to steal one of the remaining four original versions of Magna Carta’. The attempt was foiled).

But, it is essential to appreciate the stark truth that these solemn constitutional guarantees of freedoms, occurred at a time, when only the Newspaper was around as a significant medium of formal communication.

We have to take a look at the plethora of media both print and electronic that today’s leaders have to be concerned with, before we focus on measures.

In the early days, when media freedom came to be considered in depth, it became quite clear that media too must adopt a discipline to serve the people adequately.

As a valued outcome of the effort at self-restraint, media ethics and disciplinary ways received extensive attention. If, once again, the state were to intervene to curb media excesses, the victory marked by the acquisition of Media Freedom, would seem farcical.

Fully aware of such a situation the enlightened practitioners themselves, formulated ethics for their media areas.

Some of the outstanding instances of this kind of self-restraining by practitioners can be obtained from the US experience.

One of the oldest of canons and ethical codes for journalists, was compiled way back in 1923 by the American Society of Newspaper editors.

Ethical codes have been compiled by practitioners themselves, to impose behaviour norms. But, in today’s world, we have arrived at a situation, where, no discipline whatsoever could be imposed.

One can focus on such global media channels as the Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram and Snapchat. One cannot help but wonder how it is that they continue so solidly, in the face of trolls, who hack and mar most of our media avenues, even including the Internet.

The internet, that is undoubtedly one of the most effective knowledge sources for the whole of mankind, is being attacked by these ‘destructive’ trolls.

In such a disturbing context, an assembly like that of the delegates to the Cooperative Conference on Asian Press Councils can deliberate on measures, in which we could counter the pollutions that mar the universal usefulness of some free media channels.

In the meantime, anyone can post any statement, however irresponsible it is, on most of the public media avenues. No editing or supervision is possible, in such instances. The massive freedom is extensively misused and abused by those who will deliberately disrupt these vast pathways of positive and wholesome knowledge traffic.

And, the media technologies continue to proliferate on an astonishing scale. The ‘Drone’ is catching on. While all these developments demand attention, let us calmly get together and contemplate to give a new incarnation to modern media.

As I view it all the Press Councils must decide upon a universal scheme to safeguard some of the greatest gifts mankind has been able to enjoy, freedom of expression, media freedom, freedom of assembly and the inculcation in the mass mind the need to honour and respect the ideal of friendly co-existence ensuring peace and harmony in all human interactions.

With all the humility I can muster may I suggest that the Conference of Asian Press Councils becomes totally mindful of our sacred duty to ensure a comely Earth where the new generations could live happily, joyously and with due regard to all the beings that inhabit this planetary home.

A charter is essential as an agenda to guide people towards the enlightened use of the miraculous avenues of communication that we have inherited and should pass down intact to the next generations.

For this compassionate effort we could obtain a highly spiritual motto from the timeless dispensation of the Supremely Enlightened Buddha.

When he sent out his first arahants (Saints), this was his instruction: “Charatha Bhikkhave charikan bahujana hithaya bahujana sukhaya” (O, monks please go forth on your spiritual mission for the good of the Many - for the benefit of the Many).