Media - service or power?

Fr Tomasz Opalinski

There is a lot of noise about freedom, especially freedom of expression, in the media again. The discussion, which spread all over the world and which was provoked by the caricature of Muhammad in the Danish newspaper, is of a special character in Poland. We had censorship not a long time ago and it blocked any expression of independent thought from 'the only right authority'. No wonder, it is very easy to lavish arguments about freedom of speech and danger of censorship. We, Poles, are very sensitive to freedom of speech.

In the name of freedom

In his text justifying the publication of the Muhammad caricature Grzegorz Gauden in 'Rzeczpospolita' defended his attitude by frightening the public with interference in the value that is sacred for media: freedom of speech. 'The politicians of the Islamic countries are trying to interfere in freedom of the media in Europe. Danish national flags are being burnt publicly and terrorists threaten us with bomb attacks and kidnapping of the citizens of those countries where free and independent newspapers publish the caricatures as a sign of solidarity. Free Press and independent countries cannot yield to such blackmail'. Moreover, the editor-in-chief of "Rzeczpospolita' connected this dispute with the trendy 'conflict of civilizations' by writing 'recently two great cultures had the most serious clash. The dispute concerns values that are most fundamental to us. The right to freedom, including freedom of expression. We have decided to publish these caricatures because we totally reject the methods that the Islamic opponents referred to. One should defend free speech. One should do that even if we do not accept the content of the publications'.
This battle for 'the right to freedom of speech' coincided with another national 'affair' in Poland, which was the fact that most journalists felt insulted that some chosen media got 'the news', where the initialling of the stabilization pact was broadcast live on television. The journalists left their equipments and the room as a sign of protest; it was the hall where the agreement was to be signed. In their commentaries they expressed their indignation concerning the division of the media into 'equal and more equal' and referred to the constitutional right to information. We have attack on freedom of the media here! - the authorities lamented.
The media speak about values of 'our civilization' but it seems that the only value, which they are ready to support, is freedom of speech (understood rather as 'wilfulness of speech'). The word 'freedom' is frequently used in the contemporary world and it is very often misused. Since it is catchy and broad enough to embrace everything, which is comfortable at a given moment. We reach a paradox here: the word, which is exposed to the biggest danger of manipulation, is to mean the opposite of manipulation, i.e. freedom.
'This is Europe, if I mean something I speak about this', said Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of the screenplay for a film about violence against Muslim women (I quote from the article 'Freedom of speech is not provocation', 'Rzeczpospolita', 4 February 2006). However, we still ask how we are to understand freedom. Does freedom mean wilfulness where everybody can do and speak what he/she wants without any consequences; or is freedom connected with responsibility: I can say anything but I must take into account that I will bear consequences for what I have said. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom to insult or hurt people with impunity. Words are not indifferent and harmless at all. Words can hurt or even kill people. 'If you blow upon a spark, it quickens into flame, if you spit on it, it dies out; yet both you do with your mouth!' (Sirach 28:12). Speaking about freedom of expression one must ask a question: Do I respect freedom of other people, for example freedom to respect things that others regard as sacred, such as good name of the Prophet and respect for his image? If I insult someone I should be ready to bear the consequences.

Media's matrix

On the occasion of the argument about freedom it is worth noticing one more thing: change of the mentality of the society and fight for a change of authorities that have influence on them. In the period of Romanticism, when we lacked the institution of independent country, the authorities were our poets who fulfilled the role of 'national conscience', the brain, heart of the nation, which allowed the partitioned nation preserved its identity and unity. A similar role (regardless of the fact if it was deserved or not) was performed by the artists (especially actors) in the times of the Polish People's Republic, and in particular under the marshal law. All public surveys about figures and institutions that the society trusted most showed the religious, the Church and especially John Paul II. The media, connected with the former communist establishment, were commonly described as 'lying'.
Currently, one can clearly see the phenomenon of destroying all authorities, including the authority of the Church and the late Holy Father. And the place of 'conscience', which is not the conscience of the nation any longer (since this category is not welcomed by the champions of political correctness), but the conscience of society is being taken by the all-pervasive media. It is them that should provide the news (referring to 'the right to information' they squeeze into a cloister as we have just read about the conflict in one of the religious communities, which was publicised all over Poland), it was them that should judge everything and everybody without being judged themselves (they very eagerly pass sentences concerning other people and at the same time they reject the designs on vetting the media); it was them that following the old principle 'divide and conquer' draw the lines of divisions and conflicts, not omitting the ecclesiastical courtyard.
When the social communications were born their influence on society was appreciated and they were called 'the fourth estate'. Being independent of the three powers: legislative, judicial and executive, the media had to guarantee each of them their proper activities through the possibility of 'looking at the hands'. Therefore, freedom of speech is an extremely important point in any democracy. Free media are to serve society. When we observe what has been going on in the media recently we could think that the media are bored of 'serving' the society, and even performing the role of 'the fourth estate' is not enough. The media are so powerful that in fact they want to perform the role of the first power, influencing effectively the other powers: lobbying on certain legal solutions or ridiculing others, putting chosen people before their own tribunals and judging them without the possibility of appeal or intervening in concrete administrative solutions. When I observe how the most powerful media fulfill their 'service' today I remember the perverse question, which some tipsy citizen asked a policeman who was entering a pub, 'Officer, are you on duty?'
In many science fiction stories mankind has to face the threat that people made: artificial intelligence, created by scientists (computers or robots that were based on them), becomes independent, imperceptibly takes full control over its creator - man. The famous film 'Matrix' was based on this idea. Looking at the recent events one should ask how much we are living in the 'media's matrix', in which reality is not created by real events but by 'media's facts' chosen by journalists, and the way of thinking as well as the way of evaluating are created by editorial workers.
In 1982, in the period of the marshal law, the group of the most popular stars (including TSA, Perfect, Maanam) was involved in the project, which produced the record 'I Ching'. In the lyrics, which had the title of the Chinese book of changes written 3,000 years ago, the group of musicians, gathered by Zbigniew Holdys, created its own artistic vision of the most contemporary reality of the enslaved nation. This was a specific form of fight for freedom. Today, when the media again squander the argument of freedom of speech, it is worth returning to one text by Zbigniew Holdys, entitled 'Newspaper', as a warning. The text turns out to be very relevant: Newspaper watches/When you sleep/Newspaper is your mother... Newspaper reads your thoughts/And after breakfast it sleeps muttering/... You will never tear it up/ You will never be able to scrunch it up/ You will never land/ Where there is no newspaper/ You will pay any price/Because it is your price/From printed walls/ Glued as if a world/You will never tear it up/ You will never escape from it/... Newspaper is alive/ Newspaper watches/ Newspaper suffers/ Newspaper is your mother, the rock'n'roll star wrote 24 years ago.
Media can serve freedom but as all totalitarian regimes and the most powerful companies know perfectly well that media can perfectly manipulate and enslave people. Therefore, in the context of common bandying arguments concerning freedom of speech and charges that 'independent' media are being attacked, it may be worth changing the perverse question of the tipsy citizen and ask, 'Fourth estate, are you on duty today? And if so, whom do you serve?'

"Niedziela" 8/2006

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: