If freedom of the press has to give way to higher interests

by Stefan Haderer*

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – This quotation, erroneously attributed to several authors and philosophers, was presumably said by US Senator Hiram Johnson and seems to be more relevant than ever, today. Ground-breaking achievements in communication technology revolutionised the society of the 21st century. But at the same time they illustrate the drawback of this development. What had been described as dystopic science-fiction in novels a few years ago has long since become reality: the control and storage of data and conversations by Google and Facebook for instance or the monopolisation of knowledge by way of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.
New social media like Facebook and Twitter strongly influence the media environment and the consumer behaviour. Coincidentally the censorship of contents severely increased. This becomes obvious, especially in times of the global crises that have been shaking Europe and its neighbours – to come back to Johnson’s quotation. The conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe as well as the refugees’ catastrophe and its effects bring to each rational reader’s mind that the term “liberty of the press” does no longer apply, because a one-sided reporting has replaced each form of diversity of voices in many social media and even quality papers by now.
Prohibition of censorship does not equal prohibition of ideology. Political and economic elites have already realised the power of media discourses, long before the French philosopher Michel Foucault dealt with it. And they took advantage of it. By means of a sharp editorial policy media get misused for other purposes, because they do no longer serve public information and clarification, but devote themselves to cheap propaganda. Beneficiaries in the first place are the elites, the economic lobbies and political parties. The reader is finally left with only few real facts and objective reports.
Euphemistic terms which do not reflect any reality of life are trying to win over the majority of the population to consent to a geopolitical project. Be it the “Arab Spring”, the Ukrainian “Euromaidan” or slogans like “I am Charlie” and “Refugees welcome” are being spread via social media overnight. This way a (pseudo-)moralistic line is being prescribed which is to be pursued by the masses; masses who, nota bene, do not know or are not supposed to know the real facts behind these developments.
On the background of cultural and historical circumstances in Northern Africa and the Middle East, every expert for example was well aware of the fact that the “Arab Spring” would not lead to a flourishing democracy in these countries. It was rather about the disempowerment of unwelcome heads of states who a couple of days before had all the sympathy of Western governments. All of a sudden miscellaneous media reported of “dictators” and “regimes of terror”, whereas armed rebels were hailed as “heroes”.
An additional, maybe essential feature of one-sided reporting and a new kind of press censorship is the defamation of critics who do not fall into line with the prescribed media opinion. Stigmatised as “Putin-understanders”, “Assad-friends” or “conspiracy theorists”, these voices are prevented from being heard. By this means the society is deprived of a crucial freedom – namely of the freedom to approach a topic critically. A new form of censorship, the censuring of free and independent thought, is being introduced.
Since the terror acts in 9/11 and the assaults in Europe, citizens in the US and EU have been watched ever more closely. Data preservation and NSA bugging scandals are being justified by “war on terrorism”. The chaos which has persisted for decades in Afghanistan and Iraq proves that this kind of war – also unreservedly reported by the German government – is a hopeless one.
Barack Obama’s vote for US-president in 2008 led to further cuts in the European media landscape pushing aside those media which beforehand had often reported sceptically about American foreign policy. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama sealed not only the close ties between Europe and the US, but also reinforced the consistent pro-US-line of most “quality” papers. In the editorial offices voices that were critical of America were either purposefully removed – or even ridiculed as “conspiracy theorist” and accused of a radical left or right wing affinity. A reflective glance on the political events in the world, which for the most part are determined by the military super-power US, is hence being limited.
Liberty of the press is an essential human right. As a matter of course it has to observe certain rules – like the respect of human dignity and religious tolerance as well as the prohibition of racism and sedition. But if social media in times of crises are abused to spread ideological point of views and split society by one-sided reporting, “liberty” is no longer the right term to use. In this case “liberty of the press” misses the original target which is information and clarification and this way it degenerates into a pure instrument of power, surveillance and control. Social criticism is thereafter nipped in the bud.     •

*    Stefan Haderer is a cultural and social anthropologist as well as a political scientist in Vienna.
(Translation Current Concerns)