Saturday, October 23, 2010

Freedom of the Press: The Means Justify the Ends

Too often do I read in the newspaper sentences like 'we have to uphold freedom of the press' or 'this is our right to freedom of expression'. Very masculine, demanding, active sentences.

Freedom of the press is an idea that relates to the media's function as the fourth pillar of democracy. You have legislative, judicative, and executive functions of the government, and the last you have a healthy media system which monitors the principles, instruments and practices of the government. All four pillars are representatives of the public, whose tasks are a variation of creating a just society - with order and welfare in mind.

So by that concept, freedom of the press is not an objective; it's a means. The press, as part of the media system, has a task to monitor where our tax money goes, if the people we elected are doing their job, and what we can do to aid the process. The press, not unlike the other three pillars that are fundamental to a state, serves the public.

The television industry in particular often interchanges the term audience rating with public interest. Audience rating refers to the amount of people watching a programme*. The television industry is not addressing a geographically, ethnically, religiously (to name a few) diverse audience, it's speaking to their target audience - in other words, the economically sound and the centrally located.

In contrast, the term 'public interest' refers to the general order and welfare of a society. It does not side with the majority, it tries to ensure that nobody is suffering; and if someone is suffering, they have the right not to be. And the press is one of the parties responsible, or at least potential, in ensuring that no one is**.

We can blame lax regulation or a political process that is too close to the industry, which to some extent are both valid. But it is also important to ask ourselves, whenever the almost classic 'freedom of the press' argument arises, 'Is it really the public's interest that is being served?'.

* Imagine our Jakarta-centric television infrastructure and you'll understand why our television programmes are so homogeneous.
** Reflecting to the current state of the country, we should see more of the conditions in Eastern Indonesia for instance. But of course news that expose too much suffering is unappealing for advertisers, as it reduces the readers/audience's motivation to consume the products advertised. Which makes the task ever harder for the press to submit news that are 'of the public's interest'. So that's why we have the over-exposed case of Ariel-Luna, for instance.

No comments: