Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. — Article 19, United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights
That fundamental right of every individual to access and share information faces tremendous pressure in today’s world.
Under the guise of “national security”, the media landscape throughout the world gives in to the pressure, becoming not only subservient to State and corporate influence, but powerless and toothless.
In the process, the power of the people becomes a myth, a deformity within a warped democratic culture.
Sad and depressing it is to see this happening in the United States, the beacon of liberty and freedom of expression.
Media enterprises in the US now take sides with blatant disregard for the tenets of the profession that made the nation a great world power.
The Fox media group sets itself up as the counter force for “liberal” media groups like Time-Warner, including CNN, Time magazine and the New York Times.
We also saw two global media groups come into being: Aljazeera, with strong Arab backing, perpetuating the Middle East view as it seeks to “balance” global reporting; and, of recent, a professional Russian backed operation known as RT, on North American TV and the internet, perpetuating the Russian view.
These sectarian media operations, although preaching the much lauded message of balance, ignore the practice of balance, and instead set out on campaigns to bash the other side, while exalting their own side.
In the process, we see a world media landscape that lacks the basic essence of media independence. These are sad times. If we cannot operate independent media, we lose a crucial pillar for progress as a human society.
The Internet offers some semblance of balance to world news, but the average global citizen still depends on established media for credible information.
News operations such as that of Yahoo and other online media sites push a lot of shallow entertainment stuff. Any real news they report come as links from major and established traditional media operators.
Here in Guyana, we see some independence of thought. Except for the blatant disregard for freedom of expression in the State media, we could access daily newspapers that offer balance, professional reporting and credible information.
But while we see the State media operate its shameful Public Relations policy of blanket and blind support for Government, we see the independent press lean heavily to an opposing stance, many times antagonistic to the State.
We must be careful that we engage, train and equip reporters and journalists with a deep sense of professional ethics. Reporters cannot wear their personal and subjective feelings about the society they operate in on their sleeves. Reporters ask questions. Reporters probe. Reporters seek the truth, the facts. Reporters must not taint those facts with personal feelings.
We see journalists now engage in fruitless debates about the question of objectivity versus subjectivity, with many noting that a reporter could never truly be objective.
Yet, this is what we strive for in the media: to bring a sense of objective professionalism to our reporting.
In the 1990’s we saw newsrooms all over the world become victims of the marketing department. Many major US media houses saw the Marketing Manager move into the Editorial office and commandeer the newsroom, touting the justification of the “bottom-line”.
As much as the media operates as a for-profit outfit, newsrooms historically always maintained a safe distance from the business departments. We uphold Article 19 of the UN Charter not as a business principle, but as a public service to society: as a fundamental human right.
Sharing our opinions, comments, news, information and knowledge must be the air we breathe as a civilized society. We cannot capture editorial content and put a price on it. What the public pays for in media is distribution and circulation, not the content. In buying a newspaper, people pay for the newsprint and ink and so on, not the information. In subscribing online, readers pay for the distribution through servers and the internet, not the content.
These issues media owners must start working out.
We see the slow strangulation of the fundamental right of the individual to information and knowledge, the violation, globally, of Article 19 of the UN Declaration, not only in control of media ownership, and control of the independence of reporters and the hiring of poorly trained journalists who cannot exercise independence of thought and critical thinking, but also in the severe decline of writing skills.
Whether it’s TV or the internet, and especially these days in newspapers, globally, we see shoddy and poor writing. One wonders what happened to the great journalism professors who inculcated in generations of journalists the fundamentals of good writing: such rules as active voice, concrete verbs, and pithy sentences.
Now we see so much passive writing, abstractions and involved sentences that we labour through most newspaper articles and reports.
Journalism today no longer stands on its own feet. The global media landscape resembles more the language George Orwell warns about in his book ‘1984’, and his many essays on writing and thinking.
In his essay, written back in 1946, entitled ‘Politics and the English Language’, Orwell describes “the decadence of language”.
“Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism…. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes”, Orwell wrote in his opening paragraph.
That warning echoes across the 21st century global village, today. And we in Guyana must exercise the “belief”, that, through language, through the media, through the voice of the democratic body politic, “we shape … our purposes” as a society.