We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.

Free speech and good government

“To block people’s mouths is worse than blocking a river,” says Duke Zhao to King Li of Zhou in the fourth century BC Chinese Discourse of States. “Tell him the truth, even it offends him,” Confucius admonishes in the Analects [14:22]. The self-governing medieval Russian republic of Novgorod had a ruling council referred to as the veche, a word that derives from the Slavic root for “speech” – rather as the term “parliament” derives from the French parler, to speak. We find in the history of many civilisations and countries the idea that good government needs free and fearless speech.

However, it was the citizens of the tiny Greek city state of Athens who some 2,500 years ago first linked free speech to the revolutionary idea that people should govern themselves. They called it democracy, which in Greek means “government by the people” (demos = people + kratos = rule). They practised this novel form of government by coming together in a physical “place of assembly”. A herald asked, “Who wishes to address the assembly?” Then any free man could stand up, speak his mind and propose a public policy measure. Up to 8,000 of the approximately 30,000 free men in the city state typically attended an assembly.

Yes, it was only free men. Women and unfree men would have to wait another couple of millennia. The Athenians nonetheless pioneered two very important ideas. They called them parrhesia and isegoria. Byparrhesia – derived from pan-rhesia, the ability to say all – they meant that people should be free, and unafraid, to speak out loud everything they believed to be true. Isegoria meant everyone should have an equal right to speak and be heard. These twin ideas, now extended to all women and men, remain fundamental to freedom of expression in our time.

What are media?

In some places, ordinary people can speak freely and directly to each other, in neighbourhood, village, school or university assemblies. But most of our communities, not to mention our states, are far too big for everyone to get together, listen to anyone who wants to speak and then decide by voting. So we rely on what we now call media – that is, intermediaries, channels of communication.

For more than five centuries after Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press in 15th century Germany, this meant mainly words and images printed on paper: books, broadsheets, pamphlets or newspapers. The 1791 first amendment to the US constitution gives a special hat-tip to Gutenberg’s invention. It says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” In the last century, radio and television reached a wider audience. The men and women whose job was to write and broadcast through these media were called journalists.

Today, anyone with access to the internet or a mobile phone can disseminate words, images, information and ideas. In this sense, we can all be journalists and publishers. In recent years, news of earthquakes in both China and Turkey was spread by often anonymous micro-bloggers and users of social networks. A George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious journalism prizes, was awarded for the anonymous forty second video of the death of Iranian protester Neda Aghan-Soltan. A tribute to the unknown citizen journalist.

Many of us can also receive more of what these media produce. Thirty years ago, most people in developed countries used to get their news (and some of their opinions) from one daily newspaper and a handful of radio and television channels. Now, anyone with regular, uncensored internet access can view thousands of sources, journals and channels at the click of a mouse. Good examples include Livestation (English and Arabic), Current TV (English), and LiveJournal and TvTube (various languages).

How diverse are your media?

This superabundance of media, and hence of the human voices you can hear through them, creates an unprecedented chance for the positive and – in the broadest sense – political use of free expression. Yet we are still a long way from realising that potential. In practice, most people on this planet are still informed and influenced by a limited range of media, with a few television channels in each country playing a crucial role. Both private and public powers shape and limit what we receive and impart: be they the state, telecommunications companies, Ayatollahs in Iran, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or Rupert Murdoch in Britain.

And this is before we even get to those very numerous places where journalists (including citizen journalists) are censored, bullied, imprisoned or shot just for trying to “seek truth from facts” (as in the old Chinese saying) and then to speak that truth to power.

Here’s a useful tool developed by European researchers, which helps you to measure how far your country has open, diverse media. These researchers distinguish no less than six areas of “media pluralism”, which is the technical term usually used. For example, is there diversity of ownership and control? Or is too much of a country’s television, press or internet dominated either by the state or by a few individual media barons and corporations. In Mexico, for example, the national television market has been dominated by just two companies, Televisa and Azteca. Are all the main ethnic, religious and linguistic groups in your country adequately represented in the media? (Answer almost everywhere: no.) And come to think of it: why only those in your country? What about news and views from the rest of our interconnected planet?

Then, crucially, there’s political pluralism. Does one party, tendency or interest group dominate too much of the media? Is every TV station or paper biased in one direction or another? Does that matter, so long as all the main political tendencies have their widely accessible television and radio channels, newspapers and websites? The motto of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel in the US is “Fair and Balanced”, but in practice Fox is anything but. Is that OK, provided that you have other channels that are equally unfair and unbalanced from the opposing points of view?

Or should we aspire to what is sometimes called “impartiality”? This does not mean scientific objectivity, which is impossible in human affairs, but rather a serious attempt to (a) separate fact from comment, news reporting from expressions of opinion, and (b) offer – in one and the same place, be it TV channel, journal or website – some fair representation of the main contrasting views on any issue to be found in the wider society.

Regulation and self-regulation

Even established liberal democracies handle these things in very different ways. They also differ in what the state, the courts or public authorities regulate, and what is left to the market and society. Britain, for example, has until now let the press regulate itself, but has mandatory, public regulation of radio and television, by an authority called Ofcom. The man who scrutinised the editorial content of British broadcasting for many years notes that, “Whenever I visited the US, I was reminded that if Ofcom’s equivalent, the Federal Communications Commission, ever enforced impartiality on broadcasters it would be in court for breaching freedom of expression. What’s enshrined in British law is illegal in American law.”

In India, there is a lively debate about whether self-regulation is sufficient for the country’s no-holds-barred, helter-skelter media. The chair of the country’s Press Council calls his country’s media “anti-people”. Even the editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N Ram, says, “We need some kind of disciplinary authority. Self-regulation alone does not work.”

Different countries do things differently. How they do it changes over time. There’s no single, universal “correct” method. What matters is the result: open, diverse media. That’s why we, the people, need constantly to be scrutinising and pressing for more openness, diversity, representativeness, accuracy, depth and courage in our media.

We are all journalists now

These days we don’t have to confine ourselves merely to asking for more open, diverse, better media. We can do it ourselves. That’s why our draft principle says, “We require and create…”. You don’t have the magazine you want? Start your own. Yes, there’s a fair amount of cyberutopian hogwash talked about this. Most people who blog, tweet or otherwise “speak” by internet and mobile device remain solitary voices in obscure corners of the Tower of Babel. There’s a vast “long tail” of the very many reaching the very few. At the other end, there are still relatively few that reach many.

Yet there are sufficient examples of individual initiatives that do take off, and reach the many, in ways that would never have been possible until the internet age. Here are just a few. The amazing OhmyNews in South Korea, written almost entirely by citizen journalists. The “We are all Khaled Said” Facebook page, set up by Wael Ghonim, which helped spark the Egyptian protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Drudge Report in the US. The Chinese blogger Han Han. Russian bloggers like Alexei Navalny, exposing corruption in high places.

Please add what seem to you good examples here, with some explanation of why they belong on this “We create” list.

Against filter bubbles and groupthink

There’s one other way in which we need to watch out for open, diverse media. There’s a fair amount of evidence by now that the internet can reinforce false, distorted versions of reality. Online, a slightly unbalanced person can find the 937 other people across the world who believe that Che Guevara is still alive or that Edam cheese is responsible for cancer. They close themselves in what Cass Sunstein calls an “information cocoon”, constantly reinforcing each other’s false and sometimes poisonous worldview, in a downward spiral of online groupthink.

Some argue that this trend will be reinforced by the increasing customisation and personalisation of search engines, web pages and mobile apps, led by companies’ double-edged desire to offer a more personalised service to customers and to deliver those same customers more carefully sliced and diced to paying advertisers. When all of us walk around in our own little filter bubble, in “The Daily Me”, there will be no shared public sphere any more. Far from getting together to exchange facts and opinions, in a magnificent global version of a “place of assembly”, we will all be sitting around in our own individual portable cubicles, inhaling only the vapours of the like-minded.

This is a danger. But there is no reason to despair. We are not the atomised, passive objects of some irresistible force called “the media” or “the internet”. We can educate ourselves and our children in media and internet literacy, so we are aware of these effects and know how to read around them. We can support online publications, aggregators and intelligent curation sites, which counter this effect by offering a broad range of contrasting views. We can cultivate resources such as FactCheck.org, which separate fact from factoid. We can work to make Wikipedia an even better source than it is now.

When all is said and done, the post-Gutenberg world gives us unprecedented chances to create the open, diverse media that we need.

Comments (0)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.


    You claim that “it is not … permitted to criticise Muslim immigration and Islam”. You “demand that anyone who wants to say that [Islam is incompatible with Western democracy] be able to do so, and feel no compulsion to be silent”. You “think people should be entitled to say what they believe about Islam”. I don’t understand what you mean.

    Who is stopping you from speaking your mind? Your views are right here, out in the open.

    Views very much like yours are all over the mainstream media. They are also being articulated by influential and widely-read bloggers. Just look here [http://bit.ly/VthfKR], here [http://bit.ly/18ocQxU], here[http://bit.ly/18m1J8u], here[http://bit.ly/10UkffD], here[http://bit.ly/124TpZH], here[http://bit.ly/16dH6f1], or here[http://dailym.ai/132KhBn] – all circulating widely just in the last few days.

    How can you say that people are prevented from reading and writing such things when they and you are saying and writing them every day? Do you feel that what is being published does not go far enough? If that’s the case, look at the comment threads (if you can read German, you will particularly like this [http://bit.ly/NQftA5]), or Twitter, or Reddit, or Youtube. Legions of users post violently anti-Muslim statements there, which get likes and upvotes. Sometimes one or two people are arrested and later released without consequences if they are deemed to incite hatred or violence, for which they have to go much further than you do in your post; the cases your link referred to involved direct threats. Why should those be legal?

    Views similar to yours are also represented by politicians in the UK [http://bit.ly/1aizioB], the Netherlands [http://bit.ly/10HcmLs], Germany [http://bit.ly/16yAkzd], France [http://bit.ly/112jXn0], Austria [http://bit.ly/188rzwM] & Switzerland [http://bit.ly/16oRl07] & Italy [http://on.ft.com/13YvwRh] (where these parties were or are in government), Denmark [http://bit.ly/10zF4kN], the US [http://bit.ly/19lJcrS] and, I believe, your own country, Finland.

    Many political parties cater to the “I’m not racist but…” and “We can’t even say/do what we want anymore” crowds; they have plenty of politicians who warn that “sharia law” will be imposed on their countries if they do not protect western liberal democracy against ‘Islam’, including by deporting fellow citizens they disagree with. And gain, if the likes of Farage and Le Pen do not go far enough for your taste, there are even more radical parties in most of these countries, who in some cases receive state funding and in all cases enjoy the same police protection as everyone else when they want to voice their opinions.

    You seem to think your views are being censored by the police, political correctness and/or a liberal bias in the news media. I just don’t see any evidence that that’s the case. There is absolutely no shortage of anti-Muslim sentiment in our public discourse. On the contrary, people espousing such sentiments have been allowed to inject their poison into the veins of most western body politics, clouding the judgement of policy-makers and an often ill-informed public, so that bearded men and veiled women and conservative Muslims are now widely perceived as ‘Islamists’, ‘radicals’ and/or ‘oppressed women’, and many in the west have been convinced that ‘sharia law’ is the devil incarnate, and ‘jihad’ some global plot hatched in the 7th century to kill all infidels. (Evidence here [http://bit.ly/ZdZQpa] and here [http://bit.ly/ZsVNI6].)

    So why do you say that people like you are being silenced when you clearly have a platform in the media, on the internet, on the street and in politics? It must be because, beyond the crowd in your own echo-chamber, you have no audience. Despite everything, not many people agree with views as extreme as yours, even though more and more agree with a diluted version of your views because of the platform given to anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and online. 

    What’s more, most people probably dislike you rather instinctively. Starting a post with I’m-not-racist-but doesn’t help; nor does calling 2 billion people “naive”, or 12 million fellow citizens “enemies in our midst”. Maybe a bit of civility would do the trick, Dick? You may think you are being censored, but in reality you are just being ostracised by the majority who disagree with your weak arguments and/or your vicious rhetoric.

    All your claims rest on the assumption that you can extrapolate from the ‘Islam’ of criminals like Michael Adebolajo and Anjem Choudary to the faith(s) of billions of people living all over the world and throughout history. You assume that what hate preachers say and governments do under the banner of religion is the one and only interpretation of a kaleidoscopic and fluent faith and centuries of practice, law and scripture. Yet you only apply this twisted reasoning to Islam.

    If you applied your logic to Christianity, you would have to conclude that ‘Christians’ (i.e. everyone from 21st-century Quakers to 12th-century crusaders and Jesus himself) are and always were like Anders Breivik and Terry Jones; that they are and were and will always be evil because some (democratic!) majority-Christian countries have barbarous criminal justice systems (including the death penalty, extrajudicial assassinations and torture); that Christianity is inherently racist and homophobic and misogynistic because it was and is used by many of its followers to justify slavery and resist movements for equality to this day; and that many Christians want to remove the liberal democracy that is incompatible with their faith, and replace it with Biblical law.

    Those who really care about their faith, in my personal experience, care about all of it, especially the bits that ask them to do what they don’t want to do. Those who abuse religion to justify their crimes always seem to care about nothing but “an eye for an eye” and the randomly picked and decontextualised quotes that give them an excuse for what they want to do for reasons unrelated to religion. So what’s the point of lumping them all together and condemning the many for the actions of the few? Condemning all members of an arbitrarily and loosely defined group for the actions of some of its ‘members’ is either nonsensical or bigotted. But if you are going to engage in such generalisations, you will have to at least hold everyone to the same absurd standard, or people will put labels on you that you do not seem to want to carry. You can’t insist on your right to call something you think is a spade a spade but deny others the right to do the same.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I agree with ‘we speak openly about all kinds of human difference’, but the problem comes with defining ‘with civility’, because that is the point where certain groups will want to take offence at certain inconvenient truths, for instance that Islam is not a religion of peace and brotherly love.

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I am against racism, and I have nothing against any religion other than Islam. I think people should be entitled to say what they believe about Islam and the very real actions caused by Islam. Many people have had enough of the politically correct discourse that Islam is a religion of peace, etc etc, but are afraid to say so because they would immediately be labelled Islamophobes. Due to our tolerance, the non-Muslim inhabitants of Western countries are allowing ourselves to be steamrollered by Muslims and their increasingly intrusive demands – sharia law, changes in our foreign policy, etc. It seems to me that they are enemies in our midst and not loyal citizens. Islam is simply incompatible with Western democracy, and I demand that anyone who wants to say that be able to do so, and feel no compulsion to be silent about this most pressing of issues.

  4. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Some discussions about human difference cannot be civilly discussed; for example, racism should never be allowed.

  5. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    My opinion is that such kind of speech and expression of thoughts, jokes, etc. connected with immutable characteristics of people, shouldn’t be limited by law and society: it should be up to every person, what should he/she say and what shouldn’t. Up to his/her mind and conscience. Until it harms person.

  6. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Freie Meinungsäußerung ist wichtig, solange der Redner dabei nicht die Recht e anderer Menschen beschneidet oder andere Lebewesen diskriminiert.

  7. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    A very interesting and controversial article posted by Janet Haney – Kenen Malik on multiculturalism. He suggests that we can either pledge equality of cultures or equality of people, but not both. Thanks Janet 🙂 !

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      *Kenan thus represents the Enlightened universalist extreme. Maybe we can use this as an angle here for future comments.

  8. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I disagree with most of the statements made in this article for one reason. All of the arguments made above are valid and work only if one assumes that a human is a rational and educated creature who will inform him or herself before making a decision or forming an opinion. That however is not true, and sadly enough many of us all fall under pressure by our envirnment and propaganda. These so called insults which one directs towards others under the excuse of freedom of speech are messages of hate. They in themselves want to hurt others and limit the freedom, human rights and the freedom of expression of a particular group. Therefore limiting the “freedom” in the “freedom of speech” is ironically an important part of achieving a more tolerant and civil society.
    Moreover, I completely disagree with the comment made about the Indian Penal Code. The history of the law is completely irrelevant. True, it might have been originally written for a different purpose but it doesn’t mean that it always has to be used just for that same purpose. If freedom of expression was once used as an excuse to limit the rights of colonized citizens, it does not mean that it now should be abolished because of its dirty history. In fact, as the author has stated it himself, there is huge room for interpretation in the issue of free speech, therefore this same law can be used in more noble ways.

  9. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    As a general principle I definitely agree that free speech should be a universal right. Contentwise, however, there should be restrictions.
    Considering the fact that communication occurs between two subjects, the sender and the recipient, both subject’s values matter in the process. The tricky part in the proposed principle therefore is ‘civility’.
    Civility itself restricts free speech. I think most people agree that the publication of the Muhammad cartoons were not an act of particular civility, because it offended the religious / moral values of the recipient group.
    How can we thus find the balance between the universal right to free speech and non-universal values of sender / recipients?

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      Hello Annemarie. I saw the Danish Cartoons for the first time this week. They were not shown in UK when the furore first broke out, and I didn’t think about them much again until recently (it was the DV8 dance event – Can We Talk About This? – that brought them back to mind, something I saw in London a few weeks ago). I would be disappointed if ‘most people’ agree that their publication was ‘not an act of particular civility’. But I would not be surprised that people had been frightened into saying such a thing after the alarming response of the murderous threats at the time. Remember – the cartoonist was threatened with a violent death: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/04/danish-cartoonist-axe-attack

      • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        Hi Janet, apologies for my late response. I hadn’t seen on my account that you commented on my post.
        I just had an argument with a girl studying Human Rights at LSE. In summary, she clearly argued that if she was a cartoonist, she would never (!) publish something which would so obviously assault a certain group. Would you do so? Why do you think that this case was not ‘not an act of particular civility’?

  10. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Excellent piece! I agree with almost all of the points made here.

    My only worry associated with this proposed “civil” and courteous free speech is the remarkable ability of the same spoken language to be simultaneously civil and uncivil to different audiences. Accounting for a gradient of such differences in perception, I wonder if the final test of civility in tricky situations will indeed be the lack of violence/ violent overtures. And if that is the case, it may as well be codified as such in law!

Leave a comment in any language

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

The University of Oxford