Our school co-hosted a debate in Tahrir Square recently on “Media Policy and Freedom of Expression.” The event is testimony to the challenges of the times, and vivid confirmation of the changes in the Middle East. Tahrir Square has become a symbol of societies striving for wider freedoms and new orders, not only in Egypt and the Middle East but throughout the world.
Discussing “freedom of expression” in the same conversation with “media policy” may imply that they are mutually exclusive concepts, but that is a false premise, to say the least. It is true that traditional proponents calling for media policies are those who want to manage media excesses, not only organizationally but also in terms of information and opinions. In heated debate, this extrapolates to making judgments about how “free” freedom of expression should be.
On the other hand, an equally traditional argument by diehard proponents of freedom of expression is that all attempts to reform or establish media policies are roundabout efforts to apply restrictions. This equally false argument is that freedom of expression can be absolute, irrespective of the content or consequences of what is said. This becomes a debate between proponents of states considered to be free politically and states that are authoritarian or “less free.”
Media policy and freedom of expression are two important issues that should not and cannot be considered simplistically or in absolute terms. All sources of authority—be they governments, captains of industry and business, politicians, etc.—attempt to direct and influence the media. There are absolutely no exceptions. Some do so through regulatory means, ownership, and restrictive practices, whereas others by spinning their stories and information to media outlets. When speaking about media policy most may presume we are referring to governmental policies. True many years ago, but today governmental media policies are only part of a much larger paradigm that involves many participants and stakeholders.
Money and technology have made access to information and the ability to become a media participant available not only to media professionals but to any interested party, with legitimate or malicious intentions. And, given the sheer speed and scope of dissemination of any information across satellite and electronic media, the possibility for abuse is much more probable and much more consequential. Thus, it is necessary to examine media norms, procedures, and regulatory guidelines, and to do so domestically, regionally, and internationally.
One cannot envisage a robust, serious, and useful media landscape without fundamentally assuring not only freedom of expression, but also the right to free access to information. There will always be caveats that relate to the common good. To even talk about media policies, one has to ensure that there is freedom of expression to have a media paradigm worthy of consideration. That is not to say that freedom of expression is absolute, even in the most open democratic societies. All nations across the world have limitations on freedom of expression related either to protection against libel or safeguarding the public interest even beyond the national security parameter. Open societies are more effective in prosecuting libelous expressions or those that are directly detrimental to national interest. This is because they define speech in these two censurable categories more precisely.
On the other hand, sources of authority that over-manage the media and restrict freedom of expression ultimately lose control because their mass media becomes less credible or less interesting in comparison to other media outlets that are now accessible. Ironically, while trying to control the vehicle for transmitting information to their audience, these authorities lose the audience completely. And, by intentionally ill-defined constructions of what constitutes libel or expressions detrimental to the public good, they are unable to enforce the control and management that they strive for because the courts have no basis on which to adjudicate. By curtailing freedom of expression, which is transmitted and received throughout the world today, they diminish their ability and that of their societies to take advantage of the wealth of constructive opinions that exist, or to contribute to the larger public media landscape.
Media policies and freedom of expression are not options we have to choose between, nor is there a best formula for media policies and/or how to assure respect for freedom of expression. This will be a continuous topic of discussion not only because of different perspectives in our societies but also because technology enables many more participants to engage and thus become stakeholders.
Media policies, media reform, and/or media regulation are imperative for many reasons. What’s acceptable to some constituencies is not acceptable to others. What is appropriate for some age groups is not for others. What can be condoned in private exchanges may not be fit for public consumption. There really is no way to control freedom of expression, and it is futile to try to do so. Moreover, it is an inherent right that we should all safeguard, and without it you could not have objectivity or checks and balances in the media. We must also preserve and safeguard freedom of information by clearly defining what constitutes libel and where and when opinions are directly and immediately detrimental to the public interest.
We must ensure a competitive media environment, not over-influenced by any political trend, source of authority, and/or ideological inclination or personal interest of owners. There must be serious and continuous competition among media outlets guaranteed with antitrust/anti-monopoly provisions. It would be wise to create a media oversight commission from members of the media industry, public figures, and audience stakeholders to oversee not the technical complaints but rather grievances raised about the content and expressions carried in public media.
Nabil Fahmy, a former foreign minister of Egypt, is dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo