Do some media outfits abuse the freedom of speech?

Does some speech just go too far? Do some media outfits abuse the freedom of speech? Usually not, but sometimes yes.

The First Amendment guaranteed us freedom of the press. But what does this mean? It means we have the right to express our opinion, however distasteful it is. However, in reality this freedom isn’t absolute. In cases of public safety and national security the government can legally place restrictions on a publication or network and restrict the dissemination of the information. The media have the responsibility to tell the truth and inform the public. However, there is a fine line between serving the public interest and going too far in pursuit of that interest.

When Edward Snowden leaked a flood of classified documents and information from U.S. spy agencies to a UK based newspaper, the US government couldn’t do anything to censor the information because the publication was outside the country. Had it been, the government would have prevented the publication of the  information and none of us would have known that our government had been spying on our phone calls, emails and text messages (although this was denied by the government). None of our allies, such as Germany, would’ve known that we are spying them as well.

Did the media overdo its role of informing the public in the Snowden case? No. The media did not create the controversy, the government did. When a former employee of the National Security Agency felt the need to divulge those secrets (which the public had a right to know about) the government launched an information campaign that painted Snowden as a traitor who had endangered the public. The media was not exempted from criticism by the government either. The Media was blamed for publishing Snowden’s secrets, secrets that the government perhaps should not have created.

Other recent events suggest different answers to the question of whether or not the media have gone too far. Let’s take a look at the recent incident with comedy film “The Interview”, by Sony pictures.  Sony was compelled to withdraw the film (temporarily) because theater chains refused to show it, supposedly out of fear of terrorist attacks. Did Sony go too far in making an inflammatory film about a totalitarian dictatorship? Maybe (but probably not).

It is a satirical movie. Therefore, it shouldn’t be taken seriously right? However, the film makes fun of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s ruler, and it even depicts his assassination. It definitely insults Kim, and North Korean culture does not have an American sense of humor about political satire, tasteless or not. Perhaps Sony went too far with the film. On the other hand the film was not intended for a North Korean audience, and one can speculate that no one in North Korea would have known of the existence of “The Interview” had not the government of the hermit kingdom made such a fuss over it.

Whenever the image of a leader is being ridiculed (or its customs or beliefs), especially of a rigidly authoritarian country such as North Korea, you also touch the ego of the country as a whole. As an article written by Rabbi Michael Lerner for Tikkun, discussing the Charlie Hebdo affair, points out, “don’t be surprised if people around the world, while condemning the despicable acts of the murderers in Paris and grieving for their families and friends, remain a bit cynical about the media­ circus surrounding this particular outrage while the Western media quickly forgets the equally despicable acts of systematic murder and torture that Western countries have been involved in, when it is they who perceive themselves as under attack”.

As the saying goes, anything in excess is bad. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo case was, perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, too much free speech. This is similar to the previous point made in regard to “The Interview” – sometimes discretion is called for when dealing with the beliefs, sensitivity, and values of other cultures and countries. Often people in the West, and especially the United States, act as if it is their job to lecture other cultures about their beliefs, and it isn’t. In the Charlie Hebdo case, said Lerner, Western journalists ridiculed the one thing that gives French Muslims some sense of community and higher purpose, namely Mohammed and the religion he founded. Perhaps in that instance free speech had in fact gone too far.

Charlie Hebdo Magazine I bought in France at Gare du Nord on my way to Londres
Charlie Hebdo Magazine I bought in France at Gare du Nord on my way to Londres

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