Feature Article

Differentiating viewpoint from propaganda: quality media suffers

[TamilNet, Friday, 11 April 2008, 16:00 GMT]
The Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, who addressed the seminar on 'Freedom of Expression – Missing in Action?,' on Monday in Oslo said: "We must learn to distinguish between expressions that seek only to degrade, humiliate and dehumanise, and those that seek to provide information and viewpoints – even though these may be painful, troubling or controversial." Meanwhile, Oslo Dokumentarkino, the distributor of the documentary film "My Daughter the Terrorist," in a press statement issued on Friday, charged that the Government of Sri Lanka was trying to stop screening of the Norwegian documentary film, as Norwegian FM was announcing new strategy to defend freedom of expression.

The award-winning Norwegian documentary was made during the peace times and released an year ago. It has been screened at several international forums so far.

The Ministry of Defence of Sri Lanka has issued a statement in which it urges the "American State Department and the FBI to impose an injunction on all screenings in the USA of the Norwegian Documentary film 'My Daughter the Terrorist'," accusing the that the film is 'a distortion of exploitation of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment,' Olso Dokumentarkino said in a press statement issued to media.

The statement made reference to Jonas Gahr Støre, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, who held a lecture on the importance of Freedom of Expression, particularly in conflict areas where media censorship is used to exert power, on Monday.

Extracts from the speech by Jonas Gahre follow:

Jonas Gahr Støre at Refleks Seminar
Jonas Gahr Støre [Photo courtesy
"Today new anti-terrorist legislation and state secrecy laws are being passed, and we are seeing increasing use of defamation laws and media censorship.

"Journalists are threatened, imprisoned or killed for criticising their governments. Radio transmissions are jammed, newspapers and books are confiscated, media laws make it difficult for journalists to protect their sources, and licences are withdrawn.

"This is unacceptable. And again – we need to refocus the debate in the relevant international settings.

"In his 2007 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Ambeyi Ligabo, pointed out that threats to the safety and protection of journalists remain one of the key obstacles to realising the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

"The figures testify to the horrors experienced by journalists across the globe.

"Last year, 86 journalists and 20 other media workers were killed. This is a dramatic increase over the past five years and the highest figure since 1994. A total of 1511 media professionals were physically attacked, and 67 were kidnapped.

"The figures also show that armed conflict is by far the greatest threat to the security of media professionals. Over half of the journalists killed last year died in Iraq, and the vast majority of them worked for local media.

"Eight journalists were killed in Somalia, and many others had to flee the country. Journalists also lost their lives in others areas of ongoing conflict, like Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.

"Our initiative to put a particular focus on the role of media in conflict situations is a response to this dire situation. It is based on the recognition that freedom of speech and of the media has a decisive role to play in protecting human rights and strengthening democracy.

"Why? Because firstly, when independent media function well, politicians are held accountable. The media can set a spotlight on intolerance and expose injustice and discrimination.

"Secondly, by telling the stories of struggle, pain and courage of real people, the media can empower vulnerable and voiceless groups in society.

"Thirdly, the confrontation of ideas, even controversial ones, and a critical public debate are always a sign of a strong democracy. The democratic role of the free media is to deepen our understanding, broaden our perspectives and provide us with the information we need to develop our own opinions.

"At the same time, we also know that media can spread hatred and incite persecution and violence.

"We have only to recall the terrible example of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda in 1994, which systematically transmitted messages of hate that directly fuelled the genocide. It created a false but extremely effective notion of legitimacy that allowed the perpetrators to condone their atrocities.

"So this too has to be part of our debate: We must learn to distinguish between expressions that seek only to degrade, humiliate and dehumanise, and those that seek to provide information and viewpoints – even though these may be painful, troubling or controversial. Finding the right balance is a daily responsibility of the press and the editor.

"Power, of course, is an important factor. Expressions of hatred are targeted at vulnerable groups in society – the minorities, the powerless. While legitimate dissent is aimed at the wielders of power.

"This, in my view, is one of the reasons why the recent increase in the number and severity of defamation laws is a worrying trend. Defamation laws tend to protect those already in power. Moreover, much of what is viewed as defamation through the lens of these laws is in fact legitimate dissent."


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