Is freedom of the press that important?

The original text of my most recent column for The Daily Maverick:

As Opinionista Sipho Hlongwane reminded us on World Press Freedom Day, not only is the extent of press freedom a matter for debate, but much also still needs to be done in terms of bringing the benefits of a free press to most South Africans. This is not simply a matter of what goes unreported, or even of the potential stifling of a free press via intimidation of journalists or other forms of political interference. These are important concerns, but ones which presume an interest – as well as the ability – on the part of South Africans to equally engage with the issues discussed.

Our concerns should go deeper, in that for a developing country such as ours, the focus should perhaps more appropriately be on whether most South Africans have anything to say at all. In other words, we could instead consider whether a free press is the sort of freedom that provides significant value to many South Africans, and whether their inability to enjoy the benefits of a free press derives from far more significant impingements on their freedom more generally.

The focus on a free press – or on free speech more generally – typically approaches the issue from a politically liberal point of view, in that the identified threats are those which relate to negative liberties – the liberties to be unencumbered by various constraints.

Isaiah Berlin is most often credited with bringing the distinction between positive and negative liberties to our attention, even though the distinction goes back at least to Kant. Berlin’s 1958 essay, “Two conceptions of liberty”, makes the distinction between the sort of liberty which consists of an absence of limitations or obstacles to freedom (negative liberties), and the sort of (positive) liberty which requires the presence of something – perhaps self-determination.

According to Berlin, the latter sort of liberty – positive liberty – helps us to understand questions like “What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”, while negative liberty asks us to consider which areas of our lives are those in which we should be left to do whatever it is we choose to, without outside interference.
Rights to free speech or a free press assume that we all potentially have something to say, and that our desires to say those things should not be curtailed by censorship, or by the domination of available platforms of expression by any particular point of view, such as the conservative bias evident in much of the media controlled by Rupert Murdoch. If all the available avenues of expression are intolerant or dismissive of your points of view, your freedom to express those views is constrained, given that your views may frequently be sidelined or marginalised.

This concern could still be accommodated under a negative liberty perspective, however, as it could be argued that we are all equally free to blog, or to otherwise express our points of view in similarly inexpensive and (potentially) broad-reaching ways. It is unclear to what extent this argument would succeed, in that even these more democratic platforms can give rise to significant dominance of one ideology over another, leaving us to enjoy a merely technical – rather than substantive – right to free expression.

For the sake of argument, let us however assume that we are equally free to express our points of view – in other words that the negative liberty to freedom of expression is secure. In this fantasy world, it would still not be the case that we are equally able to do so, if we imagine the free individual to be one that determines her own desires autonomously, in an environment that allows for self-realisation. The mere absence of intrusions on our negative liberties says nothing about our enjoying optimal conditions for enjoying positive liberties – such as the access to basic goods that allow us to develop independent points of view.

As I’ve argued previously, an effective education system is a prerequisite for a well-functioning state. But it is also a prerequisite for self-determination, and essential to freedom of expression. It is a vital component of our conception of press freedom, in that many South Africans may quite literally have nothing to say. Not because they lack the potential to do so, but because they may struggle to conceive of the world as being different to what it currently is, due to a lack of exposure to alternate points of view.

Furthermore, many South Africans may have little to say because their concerns are more immediate. They may be struggling to find a job, a meal for their families, or sufficient warmth to have thoughts more complicated than the struggle to survive the night. In this context, concerns around negative freedoms of non-interference in the expression of our points of view come across as rather trivial, and far from the most important issues to be dwelling on in such a socio-economically divided country.

A focus on positive liberties does not come without its own dangers. If we expect the state to promote the positive liberties of its citizens, we run the risk of embracing more paternalism than might be desirable. Increases in positive liberties also frequently involve proportional decreases in negative liberties, such as those that result from increased taxation. But while we lament the fact that the press is perhaps not as free as we would prefer, we should not forget that for many of our citizens, merely being able to have this concern is a privilege they can only dream of.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.