Freedom of the press has played an essential role in Western history. In the war against feudalism, the emerging bourgeois used press freedom as a weapon to fight censorship; in their global expansion, Western powers made use of it as an effective tool to project power.
Looking back at history, John Milton, the great English poet and political scholar, was the first man who gave a clear definition of freedom of the press. When he published a pamphlet on divorce, he had, in fact, broken the Licensing Order of 1643, which instituted pre-publication censorship. Therefore, he was asked to come to congress for an inquiry, and that was how the world famous Areopagitica was published. In his work, Milton argued forcefully against this form of government censorship and parodied the idea, writing "when as debtors and delinquents may walk abroad without a keeper, but unoffensive books must not stir forth without a visible jailer in their title".
Although at the time it did little to halt the practice of licensing, it would be viewed later a significant milestone as one of the most eloquent defenses of press freedom.
In this renowned defense, Milton declared freedom of the press as God's will, and thus a basic right of the citizen. Of course, the glorious poet was called upon to act as a press censor himself in 1651. But his ideal was far-reaching.
The basic purpose of Milton's press freedom was to defend individual rights. With contributions from writers and thinkers, arguments for press freedom became a guiding principle during both the American and the French revolutions.
In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights listed the essence of press freedom clearly in its text: The freedom of the press is one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty and can never be restrained but by despotic governments. However, in reality, they have the gate-keeping theory in communication, which says all information that enters the social net is always filtered so that it won't harm the gate-keeper's interests.
The history of being deprived of press freedom had left a deep impression upon the emerging capitalist class. That was why they listed press freedom as one of the fundamental principles while designing their own state system. After centuries of development, freedom of the press has become an indispensable part of Western democracy today, and also an essential pillar of the Western political system.
No power, individual or group, dares to pose any challenge to the sacred concepts of democracy and liberty in Western nations. That's part of the reason why Western politicians try their best to make themselves look like guardians of democracy and liberty while they have to control the press as well.
The key point is they are sophisticated at dealing with the press. Instead of interfering with media outlets directly, the politicians control the press by only providing the information they want the public to know. Thanks to the efforts of political consultants and spin doctors, such measures have become so sophisticated that they can be employed perfectly.
Shan Renping, a media commentator in China, described Western press freedom perfectly: The so-called freedom of the press is limited only to their shared value system, and serves the interests of mainstream Western society. Whenever other interest groups are involved, the mask of freedom will drop, revealing the face of a tyrant. His words deserve our attention.
Western scholars are also making important contributions to the study of that press freedom.
Susan L. Carruthers, a British scholar, reached a conclusion: Like the state and its enemy, media on both sides have also become rivals in her book The Media at War: Communication and Conflict in the Twentieth Century.
A British political philosopher has pointed out that most wars in the modern age are fought through the media. John Dulles, the former US secretary of state, also said it was nonsense that there could be those who do not believe in the power of propaganda and moral pressure. And Bill Clinton, the former US president, was more direct in expressing the same opinion.
Two other political scholars, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have described in their co-written book, Empire: "The basic hypothesis is that sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule. This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire". They counted the communication system as one of the three pillars supporting the regime, while the other two are military and finance. An important question can be raised from their statement: How can media outlets remain objective and fair while they are employed as tools for national strategy?
The world-renowned linguistic, Noam Chomsky, has written a book, Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, in which he said the US government had an "imperial grand strategy" for more than half a century. Several international observers have also criticized US diplomacy as finding excuses for interference and intrusions in the affairs of other nations. From "a war to end all wars" to "anti-terrorism", so many beautiful reasons have become excuses for US global strategy.
And British journalist John Kampfner says in his new book, Freedom For Sale, that democracy, liberty and capitalism rely heavily upon each other. A silent compact exists between regimes and the people: As long as the people do not challenge the social order by resistance, the regime will let them stay in peace. The same rule applies to the media. Sadly, the same rule also applies to international affairs.
Therefore, two new functions have been granted to press freedom: Being employed by media outlets to resist governmental news blackouts, and serving as an effective strategy to polish their image.
In order to preserve global hegemony, certain Western powers are trying their best to consolidate soft power. At this time, when such glittering phrases like "war against terror" and "democracy and liberty" render service to national interests, media outlets are also facing the danger of becoming strategic tools. Classical theories that explain this transformation of role are hard to come by, and post-modernists are resorting to the belief that "there is no absolute truth".
Therefore let's pay our tributes to the media professionals who are defending professional ethics. They are the last guardians of the tradition of honor.
The author is director of the Center for Communication Studies, Hainan University; and also director of the Communication Research Center of Sanlue Institute, a think tank based in Beijing.
(China Daily 02/10/2010 page9)