Okutan: Yet Another War to be Won

2018 was a challenging year for the freedom of the press.

by Ezgi Okutan | 1/10/19 2:15am

In an age of digital reality, I find it vitally important to reevaluate, if not mourn, the many wrongdoings endured the previous year while celebrating the start of a new year. Without doubt, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi would be at the top of many journalists’ lists. On Oct. 2 last year, Khashoggi, an acclaimed Saudi journalist and an opposition to the Saudi government, was allegedly ordered to be assassinated by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as suggested by an audio recording. The news shocked the entire international community, especially given that the cold-blooded murder took place inside a consulate, symbolic of how tenuous and flimsy the idea of freedom of the press still is. 

Now, some would respond by underscoring that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, and thus the Khashoggi murder could not be a generalization for the rest of the world. Some would respond, as alluring as it sounds, that freedom of speech violations are not as widespread as it seems in the Western world, at least not in democracies.

However, many instances indicate that democracies are not free from freedom of speech violations and aggression toward journalists. Let’s go back to 2018 and examine U.S. journalism recent history: the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least three journalists were arrested in 2018, and 34 in 2017. Last June, five journalists were murdered in a shooting at Capital Gazette in Maryland after their coverage of a criminal case. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, in a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, proclaims that it’s “frankly disgusting the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write.” 

Another freedom of speech violation last year was the White House’s suspension of CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s press pass after Acosta had a confrontational exchange with Trump. Even though federal judge Timothy J. Kelly overruled the White House’s decision and Acosta returned to the press briefings, Trump announced that the White House would tighten its rules for correspondents.

In brief, even the United States, the ostensible stronghold of freedom and democracy, is not free of speech violations and violence toward journalists. Unfortunately, the same trend persists all around the world, including other democracies. CPJ again reports that 251 journalists were jailed worldwide and that “Turkey, China, and Egypt were responsible for more than half of those jailed around the world for the third year in a row” — all three nations being republics and democracies. 

In the 21st century, although it seems as though the world is becoming more inclusive and liberal, it appears that, under the mask of democracy, both governments and the public are equally intolerant toward opinions different from their own. So, if the freedom of the press is jeopardized by both highly structured forces like the government and more haphazard forces like individuals, then what is the solution? Is there one?

  Looking at the issue from a theoretical lens, the best way to ensure the freedom of speech is to rule out any and all censorship unless the piece explicitly encourages crime and jeopardizes the safety of citizens. Nowadays, freedom of speech is jeopardized for the most part because various groups become offended. However, if there isn’t a direct threat to those groups, the possibility of angering others must not get in the way of the propagation of journalists’ pieces and expressions of personal ideas. In this way, every group will have the right to respond to each other and both ends of the spectrum will find an outlet to share their values and beliefs. 

True liberalism does not only stand for the ideas that are already welcomed, but also for the right of unwelcomed ideas to be shared. This is exemplified by the University of Chicago’s decision to remove safe spaces. In a letter to the class of 2021, the university’s dean of students John Ellison stated: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” I endorse this choice because it stands for the actual freedom of speech, rather than just a pleasant replica of it. Opinions can hurt, but that’s a price that must be paid for the freedom of intellectual discourse. 

From a national perspective, though, it’s intrinsically hard to change how governments respond to press outlets as the idea of national sovereignty comes into the picture. So change seems to have to come with a bottom-up flow. Therefore, as we conclude 2018, let’s keep pondering on how to challenge the injustices the press will face in 2019.