By Sara Gonzalez Devant

Gérald Sapey, President of Reporters Without Borders and an active member of the Fondation Hirondelle was the first guest of the 2009-2010 Speakers Series at the Jeanne Sauvé House.

RSF’s website features the motto “Don’t wait to be deprived of news to stand up and fight for it”.

RSF champions freedom of expression and freedom of the press because of their intrinsic value but also because they embody characteristic attributes of democracy. Freedom of expression should be understood as a natural freedom because it derives from the act of human communication. But beyond this, freedom of expression and its sister freedom, freedom of the press, are central to a particular model of political organization.

The speaker opened the talk with two assertions:
1. Without freedom of expression, there can be no democracy.
 2. If you do away with freedom of the press, all other freedoms will follow. 

Freedom of expression is a necessary component of democracy. When democracy is under threat, freedom of expression is the first of all freedoms to be extinguished.

The degree to which freedom of expression and freedom of the press are respected can be taken to indicate how successfully a regime upholds the rights of its citizens and non-citizens. 

This relationship has resulted from a historical process that has permitted individual rights to thrive in the contemporary form of political organization we call the liberal democratic state. It is no accident then that John Milton’s treatise of 1644, cited as the first to make a case for freedom of the press, is roughly contemporary with the birth of the modern state (1648). Free speech did not yet feature as a foundation of nascent modern states in the mid-seventeenth century, but it would soon become one of the tenets of revolutionary Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Our right to freedom of expression today is enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and of the ICCPR, and it features in other binding documents of international law. It is however not as widespread as these universal declarations would have us believe.

Freedom of expression and freedom of the press have crystallized to form part of a small family of rights that stand at the core of democratic regimes. Their rising profile has only been matched by ever-intensifying attempts to stifle freedom of expression and to censor the press by those that have the power and interest in doing so. This tendency is relentless in authoritarian regimes, and is subtler in regimes that are widely acknowledged as democratic. Journalists are exposed daily to threats to their physical integrity, but continuously challenge their censors despite these threats. RSF supports their efforts to speak out by taking concrete steps to advocate for their individual rights, and by condemning coercive measures aimed at controlling the press. RSF compiles a ‘predator list’ each year that maps out countries and organizations that violate Article 19.

The speaker explained that raising public awareness, through such lists for example, is RSF’s strongest advocacy tool.

The floor opened to questions and comments. One scholar raised the issue that international (and in particular Western) journalists enjoy more protection and are more ‘newsworthy’ than local reporters and so-called fixers. This is particularly problematic when international attention amounts to some degree of protection – a kidnapped local journalist is less newsworthy than an international one. The scholar cited the recent killing of a local journalist during a rescue mission of a Western journalist in Afghanistan. Local reporters and fixers play a crucial role in enabling access for international journalists in conflict situations, and yet they do not receive acknowledgement from the outside world or the advantages that go with it to their physical integrity. The diminished visibility of local journalists, fixers and interpreters means that they run greater risks than their international colleagues.

The fact that freedom of the press is a democratic imperative should highlight rather than obscure professional ethics in reporting. The Q&A session turned into a discussion of the dangers of reporting where the press has played a negative, even persecutory role.

There are dangers in presuming that unlimited press freedom is inherently good. In some cases, the media has served as a channel for spreading hate-speech. The clearest example of this is the role the media played in rallying civilians to carry out the genocide of their Tutsi neighbours in Rwanda. In response, the speaker spoke of the critical need to distinguish between journalism and propaganda, arguing that the journalist’s duty is to abide by an ethical code.

The profession is not without its failings, as it ultimately falls to individuals to act responsibly. The discussion progressed to the fact that there is no Hippocratic oath for journalists, and that the acts of individual reporters can result in violence, murder and even genocide. This is not only the case when reporters are purposefully spreading propaganda, but even where the intention behind publishing a story is less sinister. In the case of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, the speaker argued that responsibility lies not only with those that bred hatred and made public the genocidal plans but also with those who failed to act despite the enormity and scale of the genocide, especially when its planning was openly witnessed by the international community.

As the discussion developed, it increasingly centred on how to characterize the individual responsibility of journalists. One member of the audience offered a citation that is often repeated in this context, but made a point that the discussion appeared to be getting at: journalism must comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Defending freedom of the press shall remain imperative as long as the profession and individual journalists strive to strike this balance.