We in the “West” have long thought that we have free speech, that’s only true in a limited way. For freedom of speech is much more than being able to go down to the bar and bad-mouth the government, however important that is. It also means a press free to hold government to account but most governments love free speech on paper but hate it in practice.
The First Amendment to the American Constitution grants Freedom of Speech but the ink was barely dried when President John Adams caused the Sedition Act to be passed which, in part, forbade one “To write, print, utter or publish, or cause it to be done, or assist in it, any false, scandalous, and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President, with intent to defame, or bring either into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against either the hatred of the people of the United States, or to stir up sedition, or to excite unlawful combinations against the government, or to resist it, or to aid or encourage hostile designs of foreign nations.“
As of today Americans can only assemble and protest in cordoned off sections far away from where the action is which makes the demonstration somewhat futile. Canada which has similar rights to free speech and assembly yet at the 1997 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Vancouver, a likely protester was picked up by the police the day before the conference and at the protest itself, a young law student was roughed up and thrown in jail for carrying a cloth sign that said “FREE SPEECH-DEMOCRACY”. Pepper spray was used and one well known journalist was suspended by the government run CBC when Prime Minister Chretien complained.
Britain, without a written constitution, prides itself on free speech yet until 1968 Lord Chamberlain was the official censor for virtually all theatre performed in Britain. Indeed, in America, until recent times, movies which had scenes about the happy couple on their honeymoon showed them in full pyjamas in single unrumpled beds the following morning!
Free speech and the right to peacefully assemble are in considerable danger all over the world. American writer A.J. Liebling summed it up thusly: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. The leading precedent for press freedom in the USA was a 1733 case where John Peter Zenger, a printer, was tried for libel in an era where under the law, there was no defence to that charge. Notwithstanding the prosecutor and judge telling the jury that Zenger had to defence in law, the jury acquitted him and this decision had much to do with the US 1st Amendment.
Fighters for free speech can look back to many heroes including men like John Wilkes, Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson (although it must be noted that for all his lofty ideals, Jefferson and his American freedom fighters did not consider that Blacks were people). The promises of democracy of the past are eerily quiet now. There is a great interest in the “West” in free speech in Russia. It doesn’t seem to occur to us that censorship doesn’t have to be from government directly; that censorship is censorship no matter what the origin and that before we mind our neighbour’s affairs we would do well we would do well to mind our own.
North American papers and television either take sides supportive of the government, or, when it gets too hot, simply say nothing. This is not new – the BBC refused to give Churchill time to speak in the 30s because he was a Cassandra warning of a coming war. The London Times tried to get him de-listed by his constituency. In 1937 no paper in Britain would publish the hot affair between The Prince Of Wales and Wallis Simpson, a huge issue of the day.
Let’s get up-to-date and look back to the run-up to the Second Iraq War to see how the media toed the Bush line, largely without criticism. We find, then, that the elite that govern us no longer need bother their little heads about censorship – the owners of the media do it for them. It reminds one of the ditty:
In Canada, we’ve had the media and governments in warm embrace for a couple of decades. In the huge issue of pipelines running through BC to feed China’s inexhaustible thirst for petroleum, the government of Canada supports them, the public and First Nations (Indians) oppose them while the Mainstream media approves through holding its tongue.
There is another very troubling world issue partly caused by an uncritical press – the Occupation movement. The media where I live, and much of the offshore media I read, shows coverage of the events with little or no analysis and certainly not a whiff of blame to the establishment. Whether one likes or hates “sit-ins”, the depth of the issue should be investigated by the Media. It was, and at least at St Paul’s Cathedral in London still is, a huge happening all over the world. Even though Vancouver and BC’s Victoria, had Occupation, the coverage of the event locally was adequate while the investigation into the root causes has been minimal.
The media has been “dumbed down” so as to not reflect badly upon the advertisers who, to a person, are “right wing”. This inspires the question – is being censored by the private business community somehow less evil than government control as we see in Russia and elsewhere? What has happened in the West is called “congruency” where newspapers own the Television and Radio networks which arrangement requires government granting and approving licences, resulting in a right wing grateful media captained by Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.
Proper free speech brings change, usually for the better. Clearly the satellite informed people in the Soviet Empire and China; leading to collapse of the former and the transformation of the latter to state capitalism. When the fight is fair free speech will trump censorship. We’re distinctly not in a fair fight.
The internet has filled part of the void created by the mainstream media but it’s now under serious attack, in the US, Britain and Canada which places an even higher duty on the mainstream media to fully inform its public. The media have a higher duty than just reporting events – they must hold the “establishment’s” feet to the fire and this is what’s missing throughout the world. Freedom of speech and its health require constant exercise and this, lamentably, is not happening – anywhere.