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The age of free expression is over, says award-winning US journalist

Publication Date : 26-06-2014


Although the United States citizens have grown up in an age of unbridled freedom of expression, the tide is now turning and freedom of expression has legitimate opponents, said Professor Steve Coll, dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University.

Freedom of expression, as we know it, is being contested and may be said to be coming to a close.

“President Obama has brought more prosecution against journalists than any administration in the past, the attorney general of the US has issued press guidelines and Edward Snowden was called a traitor by the press itself,” he said as he explained how the freedom most journalists take for granted were on the decline the world over.

Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and the author of books such as Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens, delivered a talk at the Ministry of Planning and Development.

While the discussion was mostly centred around ‘Journalism in the Digital Age’, Coll touched upon a whole host of issues around media and journalism as a whole.

“I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 25 years now and sitting down to dinner with my friends, we somehow end up discussing the same things we’ve been talking about all these years,” he said as he opened his talk.

Promising to speak candidly, Coll told the audience how he’d seen the Pakistan media landscape evolve from the days of the lone state broadcaster to the explosion of media outlets that we see today.

“Understandably, that opening up has led to a backlash over the past couple of years, putting the media in the position it is today,” he said, referring to the stand-off between Geo TV and the government.

There are two models available to the media in any environment, he said. The first was one of total devotion to openness and press freedom, which had its roots in the constitution and the laws that defines press freedom in the country.

The second was one of “selective censorship”, which Coll said was preferred by authoritarian, semi-authoritarian regimes that Pakistan could identify with. “I worry that Pakistan is drifting towards this model,” he said.

Talking about the digital era, Coll defined it as a time of fast-paced changes in communication infrastructure. He said that today, nearly 1.75 billion people around the world possessed smartphones, which effectively put mini-computers into their hands. This obviously led to inequalities, because not everyone had access to this technology. But this gap is fast closing, he said.

Talking about the changes in the media models in vogue today, he said that the traditional broadcast model was that of ‘One-to-Many’, whereas modern information exchanges were taking place on a ‘Many-to-Many’ basis.

Access to information regarding health, education and other key areas is becoming an increasingly personalised process and soon, anyone who does not have the tools to access such personalised data will be left behind, he said.

Coll spoke at length about the video-sharing site YouTube, saying that while he understood why Pakistan had blocked access to the site, the consequences of the ban were being felt far and wide.

“Students no longer have access to distance learning programmes that allow them to access knowledge that they otherwise don’t have the resources to obtain,” he said. This puts them at a disadvantage as compared to others in the global marketplace, because they may have the same tools everyone else does, but lack the necessary knowledge to use those tools effectively.

“Has Pakistan really had a national debate about the consequences of blocking YouTube,” he asked the audience, rhetorically.

“In the digital age, the monopoly of the elite on information will be broken and people, especially journalists, will have to learn two to three skills over the course of their lifetime,” he said.

Individuals will need to learn digital skills and inter-disciplinary subjects such as mathematics, software coding in order to be able to compete, he said.

The inequality created by illiteracy will only become exacerbated in the digital age, he said. While it is true that flattening out information over a large network of people to crowdsource ideas can lead to insights, crowds aren’t always wise, he said, referring to the unreliability of information gleaned from social media accounts.

Censorship, he maintained, was not the answer to these problems.

Journalism, Coll said, has been around in its modern form for over 300 years and had survived many shocks.

It survived the discovery of radio, the invention of television, the creation of the internet and it had persevered through the age of 500 cable channels.

But now, the lines between journalism and propaganda, journalism and entertainment were becoming increasingly blurred, he said.

He offered the audience a definition of journalism, “A profession with public and democratic purposes,” and said that the five major purposes of journalism were: to hold power to account; to bear impartial witness to terrible events; to give voice to those who are excluded and tell the stories that matter; and, asking unpopular questions on behalf of the public. “I believe Pakistani journalists are quite good at that last one,” he joked.

He then posed the question: how is journalism changing? In answering that, he spoke of the changing setting of journalistic practice and referred to the arrival of data as a challenge to journalism to remain relevant.

“Data journalism allows us to go beyond the anecdotal and gives us an evidence base,” he said.


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