Frontline on the Freedom of the Press

February 21, 2007

I hope you caught last night’s airing of PBS Frontline’s “News War” program. The issue is freedom of the press–particularly in a society that is facing the unprecedented threat we call the war on terrorism.

Freedom of the press is one of our most unique and valuable contributions to the history of civilization. But in a free and law-directed society, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility or else the law must take over. That is the essential issue here. This story contrasted nicely with the news I heard on CBC radio this morning about how Arab countries are “waking up” to the threat from bloggers and moving aggressively to shut down those voices who are critical–even mildly–of the government or its policies.

I have deep concerns about the decision of the New York Times to publish the story of a highly classified and completely legal program of the US government that was a particularly effective tool in the intelligence activity against terrorists. If publishing this kind of information results in the loss of innocent lives needlessly, then I think it is appropriate that people making irresponsible decisions would be held accountable. We would have no problem prosecuting an individual who found out about such a clandestine program and communicated the details of it to those who were seeking to destroy our nation and its freedoms. Somehow we think that if the means of communicating those details is through the media, such actions can be excused under the concept of freedom of the press. There is a boundary in here somewhere where most would agree would be wrong to cross.

But, it is far more clear to us that the Arab governments who are shutting down bloggers are doing so to the great detriment of their countries and its freedoms.  The government may be protected for a time, but at the expense of loss of trust and respect until there is no popular support. Obviously, that perspective comes from our deep commitment to democracy and the freedom of expression and the press that it depends on.

We live more and more in an age of transparency. It is harder and harder for their to be secrets of any kind. We have to think as a society about what it means if our government is not allowed to keep any secrets–will we be as safe and secure as we want? At the same time, we instinctively know that keeping secrets designed to protect the government and not the people they serve is not only wrong, but perhaps the greatest threat of all to democracy.

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