Freedom of the press is frequently trumpeted by revolutions when dictators fall, but what does that mean? And how can it be guaranteed? Those were the issues tackled by Northwestern University in Qatar CEO and Dean Everette Dennis, as he opened the first session with a presentation on the topic, ‘A Framework for Media Freedom – Governance Models to Assure an Independent Media System’.
Perhaps the most important point to understand is that, even in the most advanced democratic states, freedom of the media is a fluid concept.
Writing freedom of the press into law is not the end of the process. “Any system of free expression and free media will have lofty goals and practical problems associated with its implementation,” Dennis said. “Creating a new media freedom regime for Libya must begin with an affirmation for why this is necessary in the first place.”
He gave four key roles that media play in governance:
◆ Provide a source of accurate news and information essential to an informed public and democratic rule.
◆ Facilitate public discussion and the formation of public opinion.
◆ Focus and set the agenda for public debate.
◆ Serve individuals, institutions and society itself.
Freedom of the press is a lofty goal, but even its most ardent champion can be tempted to apply the brakes when they become the target of criticism themselves. The dean explained that that happened in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, and there are signs it is happening in the wake of the Arab Spring.
So what route should Libya follow? Examples drawn from Four Theories of the Press were discussed:
◆ Authoritarian, involving a mix of state media and closely controlled private ownership
◆ Soviet-totalitarian, where the media serve the state and are mostly owned by the state
◆ Libertarian, which allows unfettered freedom to write and publish on the theory advanced by John Milton that where truth and falsehood grapple… the truth always prevails
◆ Social responsibility, wherein rights are enumerated and duties are defined either in codified law or litigation; rights in conflict are adjudicated.
In any of these systems there will be conflict, such as the right of privacy vs. right to publish. Libya must decide what role the government and other institutions will play in settling disputes.
How then does a government decide? In keeping with the “good offices” concept, no prescriptions were offered, except that whatever system Libya opts for should encourage the growth of robust and diverse media and be constantly evaluated. The dean, however, cautioned against over-legislating, quoting Alexander Bickel who said that “the more we define freedom, the less freedom we have”
Former Deputy Minister of Information, Khaled Najm, provided a presentation on the structure of a potential organization under the NTC: that was broadly rejected as fears were raised that giving one person or body control could restrict freedom.
Several participants went on to call for the private sector to be supported, either through privatizing public media or by offering public funds.
In answer to questions, Abdulhafeedh Ghoga confirmed that freedom of the press and of speech will be enshrined in the new constitution and talked about the necessity of organizing the current media scene. However, he also stressed the need for the NTC to have its own channel to communicate its work.
That led on to a long debate on possible regulation, with a strong focus on how best to ensure a variety of ownership to allow multiple voices. An independent judiciary was trumpeted as the main guarantee to press freedom.
Robert Pepper was asked to outline the role of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), where he held a senior position. He explained that the FCC does not regulate content, but rather creates a structure in which organizations and voices compete, with an independent judiciary system listening to appeals against FCC decisions. Strong efforts are made to keep the FCC independent.
There was a consensus on the view of businessman Ramadan Mottawa that customers will be the ultimate regulator, as only outlets with high standards will survive.
The Chair summarized the debate, noting that there was general agreement on enshrining freedom of expression in the constitution, but some disagreement on how to ensure both freedom and accountability, and whether the aim should be diversity or uniformity in this post-conflict era.