September 19, 2020

Being Free Is Always Better Than Not Being Free

By Igor Rybakov.

(From the address at II Media Forum 2019, ‘Journalist freedom in the context of human right, new technologies, and international information security’, November 20-22, 2019, Prague, the Czech Republic)

It is at least strange to hear of any crisis of liberalism here in the Czech Republic, at the European venue, where there was recently celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the Tender Revolution which had marked the conscious choice of the Czech people to build a new democratic parliamentary republic with priority of human rights and personal freedoms limited by the Constitution.

The ideas and foundations of liberalism were laid by Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Jefferson, Smith, and implemented by the American and French Revolution with the most demonstrative documentary embodiment in the U.S. Constitution, in the Bill of Rights, in the French Declaration of Human and Civil Rights, in most constitutions of modern states, and finally in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by resolution 217 A of 10.12.1948 at the third session of the UN General Assembly.

In today’s world development there is nothing more important than the protection of an individual and ensuring natural human rights and freedoms. There is nothing more precious than a particular human life, and there is not a single idea that could justify the death of people or an individual. To understand this, it is enough to walk along the Valley of Heroes in Tienza, the Bronze Shoe Quay in Pest, visit the Czech Lidice or Polish Oswiecim, see the memorials on Arlington or in Beslan with your own eyes. 

Protection of an individual, enforcement of human rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech, guarantees of civil rights, the establishment of equality of all citizens before the law, the establishment of a free market economy and enforcement of government responsibility and transparency of public authorities are fundamental principles of liberalism. They will never die and should be pursued by any open society based on pluralism and democratic governance, subject to respect for the rights of minorities and individual citizens within the framework of the basic law developed by that society and called the Constitution.

Freedom of speech is an essential tool for the protection of all human rights. As far back as two centuries ago, Article 11 of the Declaration of Human and Citizen’s Rights stated that ‘The free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of a man: any citizen may, therefore, speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law’. 

This wording is still relevant today for the relations between an individual, society, and the state. 

The natural and inalienable human right to freedom of speech is first and foremost realized in the world through Media, the main task of which is to guarantee truthful and reliable information to the citizens through an honest and neutral representation of objective reality and events in the world. 

From the perspective of modern liberalism, the key to ensuring freedom of speech is private ownership and non-interference by a state in private business activities, including the media. Such key not only puts a barrier to state censorship, removes most of the reasons for self-censorship (when media outlets impose preemptive restrictions for fear of losing substantial sources of income from the state founders), but also opens up additional opportunities for the dissemination of independent opinions, including private publishing houses and press advertising.

Only free media can truly exercise freedom of speech. At the same time, Media liability should be limited only by law. Standard legitimate restrictions are related to the protection of national security, justice, confidential information and the rights of others, and are known to everyone in this room. 

In terms of liberalism, every professional journalist should exercise freedom of speech truthfully, accurately and objectively, being guided by ethical standards and norms, one of the best examples of which is the BBC’s Editorial Values and Standards for TV journalists. 

One of the main rules of professional journalism is: ‘Information must state facts. It should be verified by the best specialists available. The selection should be based on a comprehensive reflection of the different viewpoints of the participants and interested organizations, but the position of a good journalist should remain neutral. It should provide the viewer and listener with an intelligent and informative report that allows them to form their own opinion. Reporters can exercise their professional judgments, but not offer their own opinions.

The audience should not judge events based on the professional opinions of presenters and reporters. Good journalism helps people from different social strata to get their own perspective on what was happening. 

Is this possible to stay neutral and impartial? In 2004, Deborah Scranton, a journalist who participates in our Forum, distributed video cameras between American military men, who have been departed to Iraq, and a year later, from the uncut material they filmed, she produced ‘Military Films’, which in many ways turned around the conceptions of war and military journalism.

The Media may have different looks at the developments, such as Trump’s policy and the impeachment procedure that was initiated, like Fox News or Washington Post have, but none of them attempts to distort or refute the facts. None of them allows in their text such phrases as some foreign journalists use on the pages of one of the media outlets accusing their fellow journalists literally in ‘an opportunity to ‘give a jingle about themselves’ in the general campaign of the media from the liberal ‘mainstream’ against President Trump. 

We all see the same picture, but how do we present it? In my opinion, such comments, or journalism, which is characterized by subjective style of first-person narration, are unfortunately have nothing in common with professional journalism and today have different terms of ‘gonzo-journalism’, propaganda, disinformation, and so on. And, unfortunately, many media do it today. 

There are subjective interpretations or distortion of facts. And here we see that Iranian General Kasem Suleimani, terrorist number 2 in the world, who coordinated the actions of terrorist groups of ‘Hezbollah’, personally led the ‘Hyena’, and was included in the UN black list of those involved in the development of Iran’s nuclear program, suddenly becomes a hero of the civil war in Syria.

Hacker Alexey Burkov accused of stealing money from at least 150,000 card accounts of foreign citizens and openly bragging about this online, becomes in some media a person worthy of regret and injured for political reasons. A young woman, who organized drunken, fancy-dress orgies with senators in a famous restaurant in the capital of one of the states and voluntarily admitted her guilt in violation of the laws of this state, is excused as a person who suffered from national phobia and witch hunting. And there are, alas, many such examples. 

Unprofessionalism and the desire to show only one side of the coin lead to mistrust, the construction of a new ‘Berlin Wall’ between the Media and fellow journalists from different countries. And now an excellent professional Russian journalist and decent man Roman Babayan, who for many years showed the blood and mud of war and terror, is declared by other ‘journalists’ to be an active member of disinformation forces and a person responsible for lawbreaking and violations of international law. And the Russian journalists from Deutsche Welle, who organize the International Summer School of Journalism and Socio-Cultural Studies named after Boris Nemtsov in Prague, are afraid to let their former colleagues in. For some reason, we began to forget that we are all journalists, media workers are colleagues, not soldiers at war on different sides of the front. 

It is in the mouths of non-professional media that the word ‘liberalism’ became a ‘negative’ and their colleagues became ‘representatives of liberal media’.

As well as you, I read Daniel Hallin and Paolo Mancini and their ‘Comparison of media systems. Three models of media and politics’. But as a former journalist and a government official for many years closely associated with the media, I do not know what liberal media are. Media are a priori free and carry the same ‘liberalism’ or freedom of speech to citizens. 

Liberalism may be not the best philosophical school of thought and socio-political trend, except for all the others. It is alive and will never die, because being free is always better than not being free.

We should always keep this in mind. While having different opinions and positions, we should communicate more often at professional venues such as this one, and to cherish our human and journalistic honor and reputation, regardless of whether we share liberal views or not.

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About the author: Igor Rybakov is the Head of the Rossotrudnichestvo Representative Office Department in the Czech Republic, expert of the International Academy of Television and Radio (IATR), ex-journalist.

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