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When it comes to free speech, journalists should be activists


When Jorge Ramos, anchor at Univision, America’s huge Spanish language media organization, asked combative questions of presidential candidate Donald Trump at a news conference this week, some journalists from other U.S. media companies complained that he was putting his interests before his journalism. He was taking sides, they said, not being neutral.

Ramos was also doing the right thing. His so-called activism was an entirely fair response to Trump’s xenophobic, even racist immigration proposals and statements in recent weeks. The newsman was taking a stand for liberty—in part because it is clear that Trump’s push to remove all illegal immigrants would, if tried, require a police state.

Ramos was engaged in advocacy journalism, a time-honored tradition in America and around the world. We need more of this, not less.

We need it, in particular, in defense of the ideas and policies that preserve and protect the basic human rights that make honest journalism possible. These include freedom of speech and the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to innovate and more.

In many countries, notably where repressive regimes run governments, the very act of honest journalism is an act of advocacy—because advocating for free speech is considered anti-government acts. But even in western democracies and other places where freedom of the press exists, journalists still need to be advocates for those basic liberties.

Even the New York Times, which normally pursues the laudable but unattainable goal of objectivity, has its limits on some issues. Last spring, the Times challenged China’s increasing censorship and attacks on journalism, including Beijing’s expanding blockade of websites and other digital information services. The Times said in an editorial that it had “no intention of altering its coverage to meet the demands of any government — be it that of China, the United States or any other nation.”

The writers framed this policy as a journalism issue: the right of a news organization to report what its journalists believe is the truth. They were also standing up for a wider freedom: people’s ability to get the information they wanted from the sources they chose. Because of China’s policy, both stances were a direct challenge to Beijing’s censorship. In other words, the Times journalists were engaging in an overtly political act.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against core freedoms, usually in the guise of protecting us or giving us more convenience. Sometimes that is even true. But these powerful entities are also creating a host of information choke points. They are locking down of communications. If they succeed, what we say and do online will ultimately be controlled by others – a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise.

What are these choke points? The most obvious is what’s happening to the Internet itself. In America and a number of other countries the telecommunications industry – often working with government, and in some cases outright owned by government – is deciding, or insisting on the right to decide, what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. This is what network neutrality is all about in the United States and other countries: whether we, at the edges of the networks, get to make those decisions or whether telecom companies will ultimately have that power, as they insist they need.

Surveillance, too, has become a method for government – again, often working with big companies – to keep track of what journalists and activists are doing, well beyond the avowed mission of stopping terrorism and solving crimes. It is having a measurable chilling effect on freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance can claim to enjoy basic liberty, because it deadens innovation and culture.

At the same time, the valuable concept of “intellectual property”–copyright and patents, in particular—has been twisted by rights holders to lock down or control innovative technologies. National laws are harsh enough, but the movie, pharmaceutical and other industries are using trade deals such as the pending Trans Pacific Partnership agreement to put corporate interests far above yours and mine.

And when the major international payment systems – probably acting at the behest of government – all but shut down funding for Wikileaks, an organization engaged in gathering and disseminating information, too few journalists understood the implications. The centralized payment industry holds enormous power, by proxy, over our ability to make a living.

In one key respect we’re cooperating with the creators of choke points – by coming to rely on centralized Internet like Facebook and Google. Do journalists understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for those companies? If they do grasp this, they aren’t telling their audiences much about it.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberty in a putatively free society – freedom of expression – there is no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. Nor is there any excuse for failing to take more direct action.

As a craft, journalism has done a poor job of explaining all this. Technology is integral to these issues in a Digital Age, and there are too few journalists who understand it well enough, at least at the media organizations which still have the biggest audiences. We need better journalism, and better demand for quality from audiences.

When it comes to taking action, the revelations of pervasive government spying have been a wakeup call to the extent that journalists are now paying more attention to security and, in a few cases, deploying countermeasures. We need to do much more. We should be campaigning to help our audiences see the threat and deploy their own countermeasures – and to persuade the public, and Congress, that liberty does carry some risks but is worth preserving.

On this and so much more, we should be taking stands to protect speech, and acting on what we believe. We should be activists, proudly so. The alternative is terrifying to contemplate: a world of choke points and control.


(A portion of this article is adapted from a commentary I wrote last year at Medium.)