March 16th is the international day of Freedom of Information. In the new age of the internet, we are surrounded by tons of different information on a daily basis, and sometimes we might forget how vital that information and the access to it are. So, it is worth taking some time to reflect on the role of information in our lives, and why it is crucial for any society.
What is the Freedom of Information day?
On the Freedom of Information day we should commemorate people who have contributed to the public’s right to have open access to information and to the freedom of opinion and expression.
One of such persons was the US President James Madison, who is thought to be the father of the American constitution and who worked a lot towards more transparency within the government. He once wrote: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” For this reason, people celebrate the Freedom of Information Day on his birthday. This day is also an excellent opportunity to reflect on the Freedom of Information Act, which generally provides that any person has the right to request access to federal agency records or information.
While this Act only refers to the United States, in Europe the right to freedom of opinion, expression, and information is provided by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights also states the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. This fact only stresses how important the right of expression and information is.
Human Rights and the freedom of Information
We already discussed the importance of Human Rights in societies and why they matter. Whilst we enjoy most of these rights in our everyday lives, we may forget to appreciate them since we take them for granted. The situation regarding the right of information is pretty similar.
We get the news daily, and not all of them are of good quality, which is why we sometimes underestimate the significance of objective and independent information sources. The people who provide us with such information are journalists, who often even venture their lives in order to get the information needed.
It is worth mentioning that Articles 10 and 19 are not only crucial for the possibility of getting news from all over the world, but also for the functioning of any society since it gives people a chance to learn about things that governments would like to hold back. More than that, it gives people an opportunity to discuss the problems within a society, which can (and should) lead to the growth and development of a country. It describes one of the most important tasks of journalists which is being the watchdogs of society. This means providing the population with crucial information and rapidly noticing when there is any kind of problem.
A shining example of the situation, when information played a key role, is the Austrian’s Ibiza affair from last spring, when the publication of the secretly recorded video caused the collapse of the governing coalition.
Even though journalism nowadays faces the challenges of the fake news era, one shall not forget how hard (professional) journalists work and what life with censorship is like.
The long-lasting problem of censorship
Censorship exists since the first days of regular reporting. Alone in Austria, the history of censorship can go as far as to the 17th century, when the government realized how, for them, the freedom of information could be dangerous. In the Austrian Empire, there were measures against freedom of expression like the printing privilege (Imperial grace to be able to print something which could not be reprinted); secret police that observed what people talked about and which newspaper they read; and the Josephine criminal law. It stated that anyone who criticized the form of government, the ruler, and the state through writing, printing, or images, even if the criticism was fair, could get a penalty of 5 to 10 years. The situation got even worse during the first World War.
As a reaction to life under such circumstances, Karl Kraus vividly and satirically described what censored life was like in his play “The Last Days of Mankind”. For instance, the following dialogue is to be found in the play:
“Patriot: (shakes his head in disbelief): Prison for criticism in England. That’s a fine state of affairs! Fourteen days!
Subscriber: Yes, those fine gentlemen don’t like hearing things like that, they can’t stand the truth. That said, no journalist here would take such a liberty.”
Ironically, the play could only be published after the official withdrawal of the censorship, and this fact only stresses the level of censorship in the Empire. Kraus himself said: “Satire that the censor understands is rightly censored.”
When talking about censorship nowadays, one would probably think of North Korea. In fact, censorship, to one extent or another, still exists in a lot of countries, and some countries still have regimes where the government controls all media, for example Belarus, Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. This, of course, results in poor to no honest coverage of events in the country. In other countries, where there is no ‘direct’ censorship, the media are often owned by oligarchs, which makes them neither transparent, nor objective, because they only work in the interest of their owner. Unfortunately, these media channels are far more popular than those of independent journalists, who try to establish small, but honest and trustworthy media channels.
A lot of organizations are trying to fight censorship. Reporters Without Borders, for example, has come up with an unusual way to do it – they have opened a virtual library in ‘Minecraft’, where one can find works of journalists and authors who have been persecuted or even killed for their work.
Being a journalist is not only hard; it is often even very dangerous: at least 554 journalists have been killed in the past decade just for doing their job. What is even more outrageous is that most cases remain poorly investigated.
The journalists who have problems because of their profession do not necessarily work in war or hot zones, even though there are a lot of journalists who suffer from PTSD syndrome. There are also people who simply have been trying to do their job well and tell their audience truthful information about something.
The cases of those journalists have made problems like censorship, corruption, and ‘secrets’ of those in power, public. We started talking about it and paying more attention to the news we consume. Yet, these changes were achieved at a high price. A lot of people paid with their health or even lives so that we can have access to (honest) news on a daily basis. This is why information is necessary, and why the right to have access to information, opinion, and expressing it is a cornerstone of any society.
The new challenges of informational freedom and our responsibility
In the new digital era, journalism does not only get a lot of opportunities but also faces new challenges. This also concerns the freedom of speech and expression, since the freedom of one person ends where the freedom of another one starts. Journalists, as well as other citizens, should be cautious about their statements in order not to offend any groups of society.
Fake news and untrustworthy media also damage the credibility and compromise the authority of journalism as a whole. The fact is, as stated in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the freedom of expression and information also brings responsibility with it. So, it’s not only the journalists who should bear responsibility but also the media users.
One should consume news thoughtfully, which means rechecking the information and getting news from (possibly) unbiased news sources, as well as not distributing information from fake sources. This kind of information consumption has several benefits: firstly, one will get more valid information. Secondly, such behavior can reduce the amount of ‘yellow papers’ in the long-run perspective, since they won’t find a market. It also makes sense to take part in the public life and discourse of the country.
At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have had a lot of advantages without such cornerstone rights as freedom of expression and information. This is why we should respect and honor them, use them thoughtfully and support the good work of journalists and other people, who provide us with vital information in our lives, as well as for the future of our societies.