Freedom of the press consists of three distinct aspects:

  • the right to seek information and ideas;
  • the right to receive information and ideas;
  • the right to impart information and ideas

More fundamental however is the fact that the ability to perceive and communicate information is fundamental to what it means to be human – our competitive advantage which makes the human species capable of agriculture, manufacturing, and exploration.

The concept of freedom of the press is not a question of whether individuals have a right to seek, receive, and impart information. These are talents we are born with and cannot be taken away by any law by any government. What is at stake is power over the autonomy of others. Who has power to control and influence messages and who doesn’t.

From this junction it is important to distinguish between a ‘free press’ and ‘freedom of the press’.

Freedom of the Press is about constitutional guarantees that certain privileged groups have the right in within the social and political framework to seek or express facts, opinions, and research. It is a control mechanism which can be manipulated through constitution, stature, legal, and, in some cases, force of arms. As such, a society or political system can put limitations on what may be considered to be subversive or contrary to a well functioning social system.

By contrast, a Free Press is one in which any individual or group may seek, receive, and impart information in any form free of outside influence.

The dichotomy between a Free Press and Freedom of the Press is fundamental to the idea of social justice.  If asked about whether an individual’s right to seek information on any topic of their choosing, most individuals would likely opt for the free press model. However if the concept extends to the idea of someone wanting to create Ebola in their basement, the idea of free and open access to information starts to come with pre-conditions.

The challenge is that extreme situations are not necessary extreme within specific contexts. People working on electron colliders for example need access to highly sophisticated physics models and prototypes which are just as apt to be applicable to the creation of nuclear weapons as they are to finding how to create leptons, bosons, and quarks in the lab. So the general rule of thumb which suggests that it is only the thin grey line which is in dispute is not applicable as so much of what passes for freedom of the press is contextually based.

What makes the problem worse is that creating silos of privileged groups is only a temporary measure which is valid for a brief moment in time. This is because the social context in which these privileged groups exist are constantly changing. Dramatic leaps in innovation and social consciousness come as a result of information being shared across silos, not up and down.  As this information influences the thinking of those privileged groups, paradigms for problem definitions shift and within a relatively short span of time (approximately 8-15 years) groups who once were united have now merged or diverged depending on where these new lines of thought have taken the sub-cultures forming those groups.

Every given culture needs to find their own balance between a free press and press which is free. This is not owing to any specific political ideology but rather that systems need to find their own equilibrium which are generally made up of millions of individual preconceptions, morals, ethics, agendas, economic drivers, etc.. To do otherwise is to force upon a society the exact opposite of that which makes a democratic system work.

The Canadian Governor General’s recent trip to Rwanda is a prime example. While the message that a society which is open to journalists to ply their trade as part of a free and open press plays well to western governments, the simple fact is that these not so subtle hints are as much a means of political influence as they are opening doors to a more liberal sense of freedom in a country that has seen little of that in recent years. Essentially it is a cheap shot across the bow of a country that has enough troubles without Canada trying to influence political policy via the back-door.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way supporting anything that has happened in Rwanda over the last several decades. However, what I am saying is that if the message of a free and open press is an important message then using economic and political influence behind the scenes which encourages constructive social reform rather than undercutting an already difficult job through social discourse is a much more constructive way to deliver a message. The fact that this was a roundtable on the role of journalism notwithstanding, the message should have been either on Canada as an example or the way in which Canada has been helping Rwanda to fulfill its free press obligations through the UN and other organizations.

The problem to some extent is that Michaëlle Jean gets to drop comments like this and then leave the country while the people she is influencing have to try to come to grips with embracing new ideas under a recently reformed political system that hasn’t been given enough time to mature. A free press, similar to democracy, is not something you are just handed. It is the barometer by which the health of a democratic society can be measured.

For countries like Canada, speeches like Michaëlle Jean’s are certainly taken for granted that we can essentially yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre and then sneak out the back door without consequences. It would, however, have been nice if along with the inspirational words that Canada could have provided some political and/or economic support in conjunction with the new Rwandan Government to bolster the social conditions under which a free and open press can operate.  It certainly would have been the Canadian thing to do.

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