pop goes the world: press freedom and plagiarism

POP GOES THE WORLD By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today, 9 December 2010, Thursday

Press Freedom and Plagiarism

“Press freedom.” The idea is lofty and noble. However, it is also a contentious one. What does it mean exactly? How do we define “press” – what constitutes it – and “freedom” – what are its parameters, or should it even have any to begin with? Is it a right, or a privilege?

Since the beginnings of mass media – channels whereby information may be disseminated to a large body of people – the issue of press freedom has always been hotly debated. While practitioners would staunchly defend their right to express their views, whatever these may be, many of the world’s governments usually have some form of control over what content is allowed to see exposure on broadcast (television), print (newspapers, magazines), and other media in order to promote and reinforce the agendas of the state.

Image from here.

This is especially true of repressive regimes. I grew up during the Marcos era – Cold War period and can recall to what extent information was suppressed in this country and in Communist and socialist nations. People died bringing crucial information to light, as part of their efforts to effect social change.

It wasn’t until People Power and the fall of the Berlin Wall that a fresh wave of free expression of differing views provided food-for-thought for the rebuilding of nations. Unfortunately, press freedom today is not enjoyed all over the world – for instance, in North Korea, China, and Cuba for ideological and political motives, and in Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries for religious reasons (and, one may argue, political too).

The advent of the Internet proved to be a game changer. Its nature as a mass medium in digital (therefore easily transmittable) form makes difficult the imposition of control over content and publication. Anyone may post whatever they wish, whether true or false, insightful or stupid, inspirational or offensive.

Over the years since the inception of the Web, problems have arisen that may be characterized as stemming from “too much freedom”. Even scurrilous, fabricated attacks may be uploaded and taken as gospel truth by the naïve (the gullible), unsavvy (those who do not know enough to check using other sources), and scandal-loving (they don’t care if it’s true as long as it’s hot and juicy gossip).

A classmate – “Dixie” – shared last week her horrendous experience on social media site Facebook. An unknown enemy had created an account where he or she had posted false statements about Dixie and her family, alleging physical abuse and incest, all lies.

Dixie, who is young (belonging to the tail end of Generation X) and media-savvy, just shrugs off the attacks. What pains her is that this enemy went to great lengths to hurt her family by informing her mother about the account. Her mother suffers panic attacks and extreme anxiety as a consequence. Dixie has asked Facebook to delete the malicious account, but the process takes time. Meanwhile, she and her family have to bear with the pain and hurt and the interminable explanations to family and friends.

The Wikileaks incident also comes to mind. The US government and others have blasted Wikileaks founder Julian Assange for posting on his website diplomatic, military, and other secrets that may compromise strategies and assets in place in the field and have political and national security repercussions.

The enigmatic Julian Assange was recently arrested on rape charges. Image from here.

Assange claims freedom of the press – certainly the documents fed into his “electronic drop box” have brought to light dark abuses and sinister plots, bringing, at the very least, embarrassment to those named as perpetrators. Yet has Assange and his site imperiled the safety of nations?

The question then arises, is there indeed such a thing as “too much” press freedom? Or should we rather look at incidents such as these simply as ways that the various media are used, whether for “good” or “bad”, something not new to the world since the invention of writing?

In Dixie’s case, poison pen letters have been around since scribes learned to press wedge-shaped sticks onto clay tablets. Dixie herself, well aware of this, takes the matter in stride. In the Wikileaks case, many will argue that it was right to leak the classified information as a safeguard against military and political abuse of human rights.

Any medium, as an extension of man – whether communication channels or tools and equipment – may be used either for good or for evil by the hands and minds that wield it. Can you prosecute a knife for killing, or a car for running over a person? It is the man who stabbed and the woman driving the car who must answer for the hurt they have caused.

It is not the Internet’s fault that it carries scurrilous attacks for all to read. Blame rather the people who post lies, and find ways to bring them to justice, because misinformation is a form of abuse – the abuse of people’s trust.

Now we come to another concept related to press freedom – plagiarism, which may be seen as a form of abuse of trust and is also a form of theft, but of intellectual property rather than goods. It is always wrong, whether it be committed by a student for a school paper or a business tycoon’s speechwriters for his public addresses or the Supreme Court for its decisions.

Here’s a recent example where blatant plagiarism backfired on the perpetrators. Agence France Presse reported yesterday that China Friendship Publishing Company and China Media Time pulled from bookstores their translations of Japanese publications of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Not only did they fail to credit the true authors, Kiryu Misao, but they also used erotic retellings of the iconic stories for use in a children’s book. It wasn’t until the books hit children’s shelves in stores that they realized that the stories included incidents of Snow White having sexual relations with her father and the seven dwarves.

This illustration is from an ad for Jamieson’s Raspberry Ale and is from this site that has a post in French on this controversy.

The issue of press freedom is complex and multi-layered, and one to discuss over many pots of coffee or bottles of beer until the wee hours of the morning. Certainly this column doesn’t have enough space.

The takeaway here is that press freedom is a key component for social reform, it can be misused and abused like any other tool, and that it has immense value to human society to protect and sustain channels for concepts and ideas, without which man may not develop and evolve.  ***

Facebook logo image from here.

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2 Comments on pop goes the world: press freedom and plagiarism

  1. Bea
    9 December 2010 at 9:40 am (3462 days ago)

    Yes, there is too much freedom. The question is, how do you teach ethics in such a way that they are remembered? With the advent of information overload, where people have learned to filter so much information, how do you retain information quality?

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