“… no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference (and the) freedom to receive ideas and information without interference…”
Your right to speak freely carries within it your right to be informed. There is an obligation on the state to do nothing to prevent you from receiving “ideas and information”.
The government has an obligation to ensure multiple voices are carried. The state is not only restricted from infringing on individual rights, it is also entrusted with the responsibility to safeguard them and it needs to do more than just restrain itself from breaching rights in order to get that job done.
Consider, for example, your right to life. It is not enough for your government not to kill you. They need to make sure you live in safety.
They need to spend money on law and order. And they need to make sure that when someone kills someone else they are properly punished to remind the rest of the community that killing other people is not allowed.
It does not matter whether the government likes you. Their duty to protect your life applies universally to all human beings in its responsibility.
Now consider the fact that not all agencies of the state are in control of the government. Some are meant to act in opposition to it. An obvious example is the parliamentary opposition. They are paid by the state to point out what the government is doing wrong. Consider also the courts of law where any individual can force the government to respond to their complaint and the court may well find against the government.
The cost of running parliament and the courts, even the salaries of opposition politicians or of judges who rule against the government are covered and administered by the government. The government cannot just stop paying a judge who has ruled against them. They cannot stop paying the leader of opposition because he was, in their judgement, too harsh on them.
With these two examples I am trying to establish two observations. The first is that it is not enough for a government not to breach individual rights. It must also protect them. The second is that the government is obliged to ensure that institutions that keep it in check are adequately funded. These two elements are necessary for democracy to subsist.
Here’s something else that is needed for democracy to subsist: the free flow of ideas and information. Freedom of expression does not only exist because it’s more fun to be able to say what you think than it would be if you couldn’t. It also exists because unless citizens are informed and aware of alternative views, however otherwise free they may be to vote, elections will only return the result wanted by the powerful.
Before you know it, if you do nothing, the newspaper you’re reading will be gone
Everyone votes in the North Korean ‘People’s Democratic Republic’. There are nine political parties to choose from in China.
It is clear to anyone that having high-participation rates and options on the ballot paper do not a free and fair election make.
In a democracy, a government has the primary duty to ensure that there are at all times institutions and powers that allow for it to be removed peacefully. In a democracy, therefore, the government has the duty to ensure there is free and critical press.
The press has the function of seeking out governance failures that other institutions ignore, fail to notice or fail to act upon. That role of a watchdog keeps the powerful on their toes and provides a safety valve to ensure that someone speaks for the people when nobody else does, especially those elected by the people.
The press has the role to question and challenge policy decisions. That dialectic helps the public to crystallise arguments. The right answers by politicians to tough questions by journalists could help the public support their government or could persuade them to make a change.
The press has the role of providing alternative options to those being proposed by people in authority. It looks for examples in other countries, experiences, ideas, possible solutions being incubated in an academic or theoretical context.
The press has the role of criticising administrators, bursting the boils of their hypocrisies, exposing their foibles, demonstrate their wrongdoing and deflate their self-importance.
That ensures we continue to live in an egalitarian society, without dynasties, divine right and absolutism.
The coronavirus crisis only made a bad situation worse. The newspaper you are reading, this author, and much of the rest of the independent media have for some time been exposed to a toxic, likely fatal, combination.
On the one hand, the tyrannical pressures of people in authority to whom we are, by design, inconvenient. Some of that pressure is moral: they ignore us, they use their own media to discredit us, they mobilise their trolls to wear us down, they send out their hecklers to intimidate us. In one case they went ahead and killed her. Some of that pressure is financial: we face vexatious lawsuits meant to exhaust us. Threats to sue us outside the country are now materialising.
On the other hand, the conventional business model of relying on advertising to deliver a public service has been in rapid decline as advertisers would rather spend their money on social media platforms that help them reach their marketing objectives. That slow decline has now reached fatal depths as the virus crisis forced advertisers to cut their budgets, and a newspaper bleeds far more quickly than Facebook.
If you’re tempted to consider us a business past its time like riverside tanners or shipbuilders, consider that the courts do not need to look for advertising to continue to serve justice and preserve your rights.
Protecting democracy should not be a servant to market forces. Protecting your right to know should not be a secondary consideration after a brewery’s advertising spread.
You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Before you know it, if you do nothing, the newspaper you’re reading will be gone. For good. As will your right to know.