Media freedom and media restriction

Oh, so that's your "editorial independence and media freedom"! Why is this sentence, opinion, or word not flagged for violation? Why don't you ban it? Start a discussion about criminalizing journalists!

This year, in my work as a public media ombud, I receive calls similar to this every week. They are not classed as submissions on professional ethics or the quality of media work; in these letters I read a desire to limit, prohibit, silence, and punish media professionals.

Summarizing such submissions – which are often openly hostile or offensive – the most polite ones accuse journalists and myself of "supporting racism", publishing unacceptable information in public media.

A lot has been said about the role and responsibility of the media in influencing public opinion in the context of the immediate and very tragic war in Ukraine caused by Russia and the hybrid war that has been active since the middle of the last decade. The issues of freedom of speech and media were selected for discussion at the LAMPA festival, and the Latvian Journalists' Association is also planning a discussion on this issue at its annual conference in September. Public media also regularly talk about it, for example on Latvian Radio and in the discussion with and about the well-known TV Rain case.

Using the current experience of repeated calls to intimidate and punish public media journalists as harshly as possible, I offer reflections on how a specific perception of the role of the media can contribute to the restriction of freedom of speech and media and attempt to justify the need for strict political control.

Limits of freedom, freedom to limit

In calls to limit and strictly control journalists and the content they create, media freedom is interpreted as a threat to society. In such calls, I see a huge fear of the influence of the media, of a free and diverse discussion of complex and controversial issues. Arguments are therefore invented about why it is safer to control and limit coverage.

In the rhetoric of journalists and advocates of limiting the work of professional media, I can see the dominant view at the initial stage of the development of communication science, long revised and recognized as outdated, that the media act in a simplified, linear manner, their action being aimed at influencing the recipient of the news. That is why it is so important to regulate the media, determine their work, control and limit them. Within the boundaries of these views, the media is perceived as a symbolic loudspeaker that unhindered, directly and permanently plants specific thoughts in the public mind.

Therefore, the content of the media must be monitored and controlled, if necessary, restricted, because their power has become a threat to society.

In this view, the factors of public communication and society's culture are not taken into account, although they and social identities, as well as the education of individuals,  affect everyone's ability to evaluate information and interpret it. Furthermore, the first models of communication reflect the interest of researchers in political propaganda and its effects on society after World War II. 

This understanding of the media and control of their activities is characteristic of the media systems of authoritarian countries. It is familiar in this part of the world from the time of the Soviet occupation as a standard mode of media activity in a totalitarian system, when the media and the work of journalists were subject to strict censorship.

Could it be that we have not progressed beyond the Soviet press model in our media literacy, if an opinion that we disagree with, or a word whose meaning we understand differently, an idea that is not clear, seems so dangerous that its speaker has to be removed from the public conversation?

Such views are shown by the most prominent attempt at public media political influence in recent years, when former Minister of Defense Artis Pabriks, demonstrating his understanding of media effects and the politician's right to limit editorial choices, published a threat not to support an increase in public media funding.

In the commercial media system, the direct effect of persuasion is reflected by the publicity model, which is characterized by advertising goals and expected effects, i.e. one-sided, uniform dominance of a favorable message, trying to outcompete other messages and suppress unfavorable information.

Such views offer a reductive view of the function of the media and their role in democracy, focusing on the supposedly unspoken – but present in public discourse – duty of the media to serve the government rather than public interests. They justify constant efforts to instrumentalize journalism, subjugate the media, make them a tool in someone's hands, usually the hands of the representatives of current power. It has nothing to do with an independent media environment, in which the existence of the media as an independent, permanent subsystem is ensured and protected, so that society has access to free and diverse self-monitoring, which is necessary for its development and the quality of democracy.

Freedom of speech as a value

In the discussion about media control and restriction, I see not a clash of goals or interests, but a clash of values, that is, the revision of freedom of speech and media as a value. On the one hand, there are calls to limit it, to abandon it for security reasons. On the other hand, I hear reminders to remember how important it is, that until recently, before regaining independence, we have fought for it, and even in unsafe conditions (military conflicts, socio-economic crises) we must not lose it again.

Freedom of speech has always been discussed in the context of its limitations, emphasizing public safety and specifying it as the obligation not to disclose state secrets, and individual rights, primarily human dignity, for the defense of which restrictions on freedom of speech are permissible.

Currently, when discussing whether and how media should be restricted, both the media's effect and the understanding of media freedom must be taken into account. If support is obtained by restricting the diversity and pluralism of the media, the information they provide, then this also means a decrease in the freedom of the press, because accessibility is a part of freedom of speech – it is not possible without freely available information. By this, I don't mean those propaganda channels which are reasonably closed in accordance with the law and which have little to do with professional media work.

As I have already mentioned, in the work of the public media ombudsman, I have received submissions and calls expressed in the form of letters to limit statements, sources of information, indignation at the sounding of a word or phrase on the air of public media. As in the classic adage of "shooting the messenger", public media is blamed when a source of information says something supposedly "unacceptable". It is like constant external pressure, an effort to limit editorial independence, as if someone has created an invisible but very specific list of prohibited persons, words, thoughts and is trying to force others to follow it, creating a hostile media effect.

The same statements that appear arrive in these e-mails appear in the communication of specific accounts on social platforms. Contrary to these statements, in my guest lectures in Latvian libraries and schools, discussing examples of media and journalistic ethics, I see that society is much more open to a diversity of opinions and accepts the free operation of the media. In face-to-face conversations, people support the freedom of journalists to offer different opinions, maintain a diverse discussion, and are against restrictions even in cases where the opinions do not correspond with a personal position. 

This is also shown by the Ombud's focus group research. Its members notice when the independence of the media is being restricted and are debating how and whether the media can be independent. Calls to constantly restrict the media, to show that they threaten security, therefore act against the interests of the public, and are not genuinely popular – that is my conclusion.

The writer is an associate professor of Riga Stradiņš University and serves as the current Latvian public electronic mass media ombud, whose role, according to the law, is to "monitor the conformity of the services provided by public electronic mass media with the objective laid down in Section 1 of this Law and the basic principles for the operation of public electronic mass media laid down in Section 3 of this Law, the code of ethics and editorial guidelines of public electronic mass media and, upon its own initiative or on the basis of the submissions of persons, provide an opinion on the conformity of the programs and services of public electronic mass media with the abovementioned documents, and also perform other functions laid down in this Law." You can read the full laws HERE. As part of Latvian public media, LSM, including this English-language portal, comes within the remit of the ombudsman.
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