I’ll admit: hot topics like the freedom of press are not usually things I look at for my website, which is weird considering I studied journalism and I do still hold the trade close to my heart. However as I was watching Spielberg’s The Post the other night I started thinking…
I did dive into the subject of freedom of press and national security once, for a paper that I had to write for a class, and it was this class that I was suddenly reminded of when watching the movie. I don’t think I’ve thought of that paper ever since I handed it in six years ago. The paper was based on a problem that arose in South Africa during the times of the apartheids-regime, however, in this modern day and time the question raised by the movie (which was spectacular, by the way) has been raised again:
As a journalist in a warzone, would you withhold information from publication to secure the safety of the army, or you do speak out and tell the audience the truth and the whole story? Which one is of more importance, public interest or national security?
Public Interest versus National Security
Gunfire fills your ears, tanks drive around you. Everyone is opening fire at everything in sight. You hear screaming but cannot do anything without risking to get killed yourself. Soldiers set houses on fire. It is what happens in the movie Bang Bang Club. You, as journalist, hear and see everything. Should you publish in case of public interest, or keep your mouth shut because of national security?
Public interest. It is defined as: “[…] 2. Appeal or relevance to the general populace: a news story of public interest.” Also known as a broad and fuzzy subject, which inflicts politics, economics, environment and the military. The United Nations, the war against terrorism, the riots in England in the summer of 2011, and the protection of the rhino’s in Kruger: “We have declared war on poachers.” . The military involves more of ‘normal life’ than anyone would suspect.
The military and public interest are two things that do not fit well together for governments. Journalists who try to get involved do not have an easy job. John Pilger shows this in his movie The War You Don’t See. In an interview he had back in 2010, he stated that governments make it less easy for journalists to see the other side of the story. They manipulate media into showing their point of view, which would make soldiers brave fighters for the good cause. And everyone else is fighting for evil and should be stopped. In an article about the freedom of press, written by Justine Feitsma, this method is questioned. “Should war crimes committed by a government continue to be undisclosed because it can possible put lives at risk? If this is true, then countries will be able to do anything they want while reasoning like this.”
A journalist in a warzone usually works embedded, as governments will only secure your safety if you stay inside their boundaries. This will force you to write the story that they like to see. Going out in the field on your own could mean that you get killed. Governments do not want big media items to protect the national security. But the audience has the right to know the whole story, in the case of public interest.
In the movie Bang Bang Club, journalists work around the boundaries set by the government. A matter which should concern every journalist who works in a warzone. In the film, the army shoots at civilians in townships but is too scared to actually leave their tanks. Even when someone is smoking marihuana right next to them. The media are not allowed to publish these pictures as they will affect the image of the South African military. But the world should know what is going on. A matter of ‘Public Interest vs. National Security’. The photographers work around the law by using international media, publishing pictures that are forbidden by the South African government. In modern times there are websites that can be used and accessed by everyone. Shutting people up becomes harder and harder every day. Of course, the movie shows the situation before 1994, but even now it isn’t easy because of new laws.
New laws as the Protection of Information Bill. If this becomes an Act, it can and will be used by the South African government to keep the media’s mouth shut. On page 7, it states that the media cannot publish anything based on “domestic military intelligence”, involving intelligence required for planning and conducting of South African military operations. This would be in immediate violation with the Bill of Rights, article 16: ‘1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes a. Freedom of the press and other media; b. Freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;[…] 2. The right in subsection (1) does not extend to a. Propaganda for war; […]”. Could you state that neglecting information, in the case of national security, and with that withholding information about war crimes committed by the army is not a form of propaganda? Because if people do not know, they keep thinking positive about war.
This ‘positive thinking’ is shown in a case in the Netherlands. The media and its consequences shocked governments and international organizations.
When the Netherlands decided, by Lower House vote, to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan, they did agree on a police training mission in Kunduz. After investigation by the Parliament, it was founded as a safe province. Only a couple of months later, the press showed material of the Taliban executing the police-chief in Kunduz, and policemen fighting Taliban members. Politician Harry van Bommel, member of the Socialistic Party, was sceptic about the mission as there would be no guarantee that the police would be safe, he was right. As he predicted, the public opinion turned against the government. Eventually, this caused the Parliament to resign, shocking the international organizations as a government could collapse under the public opinion about war.
Although freedom of press and information is part of the Dutch Constitution, noted in Article 7: ‘1. No one needs permission to use the press to share thoughts or feelings, as long as they keep their obligation to the law. 2. The same law goes for radio and television broadcasts. […]’, the Dutch media never went far outside the boundaries of embedded journalism. This case was the first step outside of those boundaries. The government was not amused by the articles, stating that it could endanger not only the mission and the people in service, but that it would also weaken the image of the Netherlands in the eyes of our allies. It was a case of ‘Public Interest vs. National Security’.
The media decided that the public interest was of more value than the ‘image of the Netherlands’, and they were right. The audience was shocked about the numbers of deaths, the suffering of civilians and the idea that ‘their policemen’ had to go there. It completely changed the image of war in the Netherlands. To the Netherlands, it was a bigger shock than Wikileaks.
Wikileaks is the ultimate example of choosing public interest over national security. Starting in 2006, the website posted thousands of files inflicting military issues that were kept secret in the case of national security. By publishing them, the endangered the lives of soldiers, diplomats, informants, spies and their families. But this time, the world knew the entire truth about the army.
Was this decision morally correct? It could be questioned. The Dutch media published their information, and so did Wikileaks. But they got their information from an informant with access to every detail. Now, Wikileaks-founder Julian Assange faces possible charges of terrorism, and his informant Bradley Manning faces charges of high treason, by the American Pentagon. But they say they did the right thing by letting the world know what the military is up to. Assange broke the unwritten rules around national security, raising questions around the world how other media did not see and report this. Which means that people are aware and do want to know. As John Pilger stated in the earlier mentioned interview: “No free flow of information; no democracy. Without an informed public, political or corporate authority – any authority – cannot be held account, and if it’s not held to account, it’s very soon corrupted.” The Dutch media did this in the earlier mentioned Kunduz-mission.
Now, the media are considering its options to report without being scared for the consequences. They have been trying to broaden the boundaries on the subject of war. In 2011, Assange won the Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism. The judges stated: “WikiLeaks has been portrayed as a phenomenon of the hi-tech age, which it is. But it’s much more. Its goal of justice through transparency is the oldest and finest tradition of journalism.”
Thomas Jefferson ones stated: “Free information is the currency of democracy.” And he was right. In the ethical issue ‘Public Interest vs. National Security’, the decision cannot be easily made. But, as Feitsma wrote in her article: “Who decides what information is dangerous and should therefore be kept secret?” And are journalists not supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public, instead of the government?
This is why I state that public interest is more important than national security. Freedom of press is a constitutional right which should be used to create a society that knows what is going on in the government. With this constitutional right comes the obligation to inform people. Public interest is essential to journalists, because without it there wouldn’t be any journalism as no one would be interested. So that is why we should tell the public the truth, the whole story. Speak out instead of being shut up!