Unfettered Freedom

Article excerpt

The exercise of the right to freedom of expression fully demonstrates the two dimensions of freedom: the absence of arbitrary power, and the ability to express oneself.

The first dimension - the absence of despotic pressure or physical or intellectual coercion - should be seen in terms of the "real limits of freedom". In this sense, freedom is the area of autonomy every human being enjoys within the various kinds of limits - structural, institutional, social, cultural, economic and political - that define his or her existence and impose constraints on it.

But it would be wrong to regard freedom as a negative concept, as an absence of constraints, as what is left when oppression ceases. Freedom is, or should be, the capacity to, the power to do something. The Spanish thinker Julian Marias summed the matter up splendidly when he wrote that "true freedom is not . . . an absence of restrictions but a real opportunity to make projects and to carry out those projects in one's life. . . . In English, the expressions freedom from and freedom to accurately describe these two aspects of freedom.

In many world regions the breaking of the chains of tyranny and removal of oppressive structures are not enough to ensure that citizens fulfil their desire for genuine freedom and a dignified life. This combination of freedom and capacity is implicit in the debate about formal freedom and real freedom. On the threshold of a new millennium, and after the immense changes of the past few years, we can more clearly appreciate that one of the major challenges of the coming century will be to ensure that it will be really possible for formal rights to be exercised; in other words that unfettered freedom will be accompanied by the capacity to make full and effective use of it.

Perhaps in no other field of human activity is this truth more obvious than in that of freedom of expression, especially freedom of the press. In journalism, something more than the absence of censorship or threats is needed if professionals are to do good work. Material resources and the right social conditions are also required for the exercise of the right to free speech.

Above all, the mass media must function independently and objectively; otherwise they will lose the reason for their existence. Here there is no place for ambiguities or appearances: facts are the only things that count. And the context is a highly complex one in which it is sometimes virtually impossible to see the pattern of cause and effect. We are talking about freedom to write and to describe. When we write, we put our own freedom on the line; when we describe, other people's freedom is at stake. The reader, the person at the receiving end, is both a mirror and a reference point. The media cannot use technological and financial reasons as an excuse for consigning to irrelevance or anonymity the unique protagonist: the human being, the journalist, the person writing his or her thoughts or describing an event.

Access to ideas

Even when the mass media succeed in preserving independent judgment, the latter is not in itself a guarantee of "objectivity", which is the result of a complex set of geographical, ideological, historical and cultural factors. The very act of choosing which news and opinions are or are not worth publishing is highly subjective. This can be clearly seen by comparing the space currently devoted to victims of the war in Bosnia - because it is a wound in the very heart of Europe - with the scant coverage being given to events in Angola and Afghanistan, where the number of victims may be far higher. Distance and spectacular events condition editorial choice, which is not always made on the grounds of what might be called "global equity", even in the most independent media. Another example is the attention devoted by the mass media to two of the major problems of our time, the Middle East and South Africa.

Freedom, capacity, independence and objectivity are but a few of the many different issues today at stake in the world of the press. …