Some defining moments happened last week. We lost Nelson Mandela. We heard The Guardian editor defending his paper in exposing the overreach of spying agencies before the British Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee. We witnessed Japan passing a draconian state secrecy law. Both as a journalist and as an ombudsman of this newspaper, my primary concern is about high quality journalism that is not fettered by either internal inadequacies and an external environment. My recent columns have dealt with some of the internal shortcomings. The time has come to zoom out and look critically at a new reality that has the potential to render journalism vulnerable.
While the attempts to tame the press are global, they could not take away the spirit of freedom, resistance and the commitment to tell the truth from journalists. Carl Bernstein, icon of Watergate reporting, wrote a personal letter to The Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, hours before his deposition. Without mincing words, Bernstein contended: “your appearance before the Commons today strikes me as something quite different in purpose and dangerously pernicious: an attempt by the highest U.K. authorities to shift the issue from government policies and excessive government secrecy in the United States and Great Britain to the conduct of the press — which has been quite admirable and responsible in the case of The Guardian, particularly, and the way it has handled information initially provided by Mr. Snowden.”
Demonising truth telling
The chair of the house committee, Keith Vaz, dangerously inserted the idea of an uncritical patriotism into the narrative during the deposition. He asked Rusbridger: “You and I were both born outside this country, but I love this country. Do you love this country?” Rusbridger’s answer was at once specific and universal: “I’m slightly surprised to be asked the question but, yes, we are patriots and one of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy, the nature of a free press and the fact that one can, in this country, discuss and report these things.”
One fact which emerged from the home affairs committee inquiry is that the state has no legitimate reason to spy on its citizens, that nationalism and security were invoked to gloss over the overreach and undemocratic behaviour of the state apparatus, and to demonise the act of truth telling. The sense of purpose and pride in journalism does not lie in dealing only with what is acceptable to the powers that be, but in relentlessly bringing out the uncomfortable truths. Journalists are as concerned as nation-states about the safety and security of the people.
Last Friday, Japan enacted a new law under which officials who leak “special state secrets” and journalists who seek to obtain them could face prison. The law allows heads of ministries and agencies to classify 23 vaguely worded types of information related to defence, diplomacy, counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism, almost indefinitely. Top officials in all ministries — rather than only defence officials as currently — will be able to designate state secrets for five years, renewable in five-year increments and potentially indefinitely, although cabinet approval would be required after 30 years.
According to agency reports, older Japanese intellectuals, lawyers and activists fear the country could be edging toward the sort of repression of a free press and speech seen before and during World War II which resulted in the arrests of tens of thousands of people. Thousands of protesters turned out to rally against the legislation. The law mandates prison terms of up to 10 years for government officials who leak secrets. Journalists who get information in an “inappropriate” or “wrong” way could be jailed for up to five years. It bans attempted leaks, inappropriate reporting, complicity and solicitation.
Liberal democracies shouldn’t do this
If liberal democracies like the United Kingdom and Japan are reneging on their commitment to free speech and press, and can come up with punitive legislation and infringing parliamentary practices, I shudder to think what lessons illiberal regimes may adopt over the next few years. It is in this context, I feel the passing away of Mandela has poignant meaning. The only way most of the nation states can pay homage to this extraordinary human being, who spent his entire life espousing the cause of freedom and human dignity, is to refrain from enacting any law that places restrictions on the watchdog role of the media.
This is also the centenary year of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize. It is worth remembering what he wrote on December 31, 1899:
“The hungry self of the Nation shall burst in a violence of fury from its own shameless feeding.
For it has made the world its food, and licking it, crunching it and swallowing it in big morsels,
It swells and swells till in the midst of its unholy feast descends the sudden shaft of heaven piercing its heart of grossness.”