Suppression of a free press, an early hallmark of dictatorship – M’membe

FRED M’membe says without press freedom, other freedoms would be impossible to imagine.

Addressing parliament last Friday, President Edgar Lungu claimed that he was affirm believer in press freedom.

The Head of State promised a favourable environment for the media as the country heads for Presidential and General Elections this August.

Commenting on the same, Dr M’emembe, the Socialist Party president, said it would be impossible to achieve anything without the freedom to think.

“Press freedom is not some fluffy but impractical ideal, like free love, to be butted out of existence by those who disapprove of its consequences.

Without the freedom to think, say, write, publish, read, hear, love and hate what we choose, other freedoms would be impossible to imagine,” he said. “Freedom of the press remains the only hope we have of knowing anything. A free press, in all its forms is the lifeblood of a free society and a vital citizenry. That is why the suppression of a free press has always been the early hallmark of dictatorship.’’

He said claims of belief in press freedom had become a popular mantra even among dictators.

“The President of our Republic says he is ‘a firm believer of press freedom’ But…Everybody in our public life claims to believe in press freedom. And the mantra of the moment seems to be; ‘Of course I believe in a free press, BUT…’ And the ‘buts’ are getting bigger. ‘But’, they insist, there must be tougher press regulation,” Dr M’membe noted.

“So yes, I believe absolutely in the principle of a free press. And yes, it is clear that the exercise of that freedom can cause plenty of trouble for people. Nobody should be naive or complacent about the problems of journalistic standards today. Nor should we try to take a morally neutral view of an irresponsible press.”

He however warned that press freedom is “always a messy affair”.

“It means allowing others the freedom to publish things that we may not want to see,” he said.

Quoting renowned British writer George Orwell, Dr M’membe said, “A free press must be one that is free, not from being judged or subjected to normal criminal law, but from being restrained or punished on the grounds of taste or ‘decency’ or offended feelings or outraged sensibilities”.

“The misuse of our freedom by some is not an excuse for allowing the authorities to misappropriate it. However, you or I might wish it to be, the hard truth is that a free press does not have to conform to our or anybody else’s notions of what is good journalism, or of what is ethical to report, or of what is too offensive to say or show,” Dr M’membe added. “The principle of free press might look pristine when set down on paper. But in reality, that lofty principle can be exploited for low purposes. Press freedom is indeed a muddy and sometimes bloody business. Press freedom is not something to be rationed out like charity, to only the most ‘deserving’ cases. A right is a right, and it is not limited by any incumbent responsibilities.”

He said no matter how bad things could be, if there is a free press it is easier to make corrections.

“Of course, any good journalist should be prepared to stand up and take responsibility for what they write, and for the methods they use to get that story,” said Dr M’membe. “But the wish to see responsible journalism cannot be used to trample on the freedom of others. No matter how imperfect things are, if you got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.”

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