The Double-Edged Nature of the Free Press

By: Mohamed A. Suleiman
Thursday, February 06, 2014

At its simplest form, Free Press or freedom of the press is defined by the famous Wikipedia as the freedom of communication and expression through vehicles including various electronic media and published materials. Wikipedia adds, “While such freedom mostly implies the absence of interference from an overarching state, its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.”

Also, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.”

In many democracies around the world, this much coveted right is enshrined in the national constitution. For instance in North America, the First Amendment guarantees freedom of press to the citizens of the United States of America. Like wise, Canadian citizens are guaranteed the same rights through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

However, according to the Reporters Without Borders (RWB), more than one third of the world’s people live in countries where there is no freedom of the press. RWB adds that overwhelmingly, these people live in countries where there is no system of democracy or where there are serious deficiencies in the democratic process.

Somalia falls within the realm of that one third and a cursory look at its press and how it operates would highlight the depth of these deficiencies.

In the well established democracies like the United States and Canada, citizens are granted personal freedoms, including the freedom of press, through the national constitution. However, these personal freedoms are defined clearly and there are also limitations to those freedoms which are also defined clearly.

For instance, freedom of the press does not mean that you could write or publish whatever you like. In the case of the United States, for example, there are in fact exceptions to the First Amendment when it comes to freedom of the press. These limitations include the prohibition of anything that falls under one of the following categories: incitement to imminent lawless action; threats; fraudulent misrepresentation/invasion of privacy; fighting words; discriminatory harassment; child pornography; obscenity; and defamation. Essentially, there are checks and balances that are built into the constitution that are designed to guarantee personal freedoms while at the same time safeguarding the greater good of the society.

While I understand that we can not compare Somalia to the western democracies, it is imperative that we understand that the role of the press in either building a nation or ruining it is quite profound or paramount.

To put Somalia’s freedom of the press anguisehes into perspective, we need to reflect on the circumstances that led to the emergence of the contemporary Free Press that we see throughout the country.

Somalia was a country where freedom of the press was non-existent and where strict control of access to information and its dissemination was in place. State owned news organizations that were designed to maintain and promote the existing political power base where the only vehicles for mass communication. The police, the military, and intelligence agencies often used a brutal crackdown to suppress any attempts by the media or individual journalists to air any or all views that were not officially sanctioned by the regime.

When that kind of power structure collapsed in the early 1990s, the people instinctively reclaimed their personal rights and freedoms. This led to an exponential growth of what is commonly referred today as the Free Press. This growth however outpaced any attempts by any authority anywhere in Somalia to regulate this new industry. Unfortunately, the industry also failed to self-regulate.

Despite the issues that pertain to regulation and putting checks-and-balances in place, there are also problems with the training and professionalism of the people who operate this so-called Free Press. There are a myriad of pseudo-journalistic entities in operation that do not have a clue that there are ethics in journalism and that there are limits to the freedom of the press. Objectivity which should be the prevailing motto of any responsible press appears to have given way to sensationalism and the glorification of falsehood.

Any fair-minded person would agree that the freedom of the press is cornerstone to any viable civil and democratic society. However, the Somali people should guard against the runaway, pseudo-journalistic entities that do not understand or otherwise flagrantly disregard that there are limits to the Free Press. Safeguards similar to the exceptions made to the First Amendment in the case of the United States should be put in place in Somalia so that we could have responsible press that balances between individual rights and the greater good of the society.

It is commonly agreed that a responsible journalist would adhere to the basic principles of journalism – truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability. The social responsibility of the journalist is even more critical in the absence of functioning national institutions.

Somalis all over the world are increasingly becoming weary of the so called Somali Free Press that habitually fabricate and sensationalize news stories. What is more worrisome is the fact that the Somali press is mostly operated by the diaspora and along regional, tribal, and ideological lines. It could be argued that the Somali press, with all its denominations, is the vehicle that is fueling all the conflicts and hostilities that are raging in the country.

A cursory look at the myriad of Internet based sources, newspapers, radios and televisions and the kind of information that most of them disseminate suffices to shed light as to why this problem is critical. Most of the things that you would hear, see or read are divisive, derogatory, slanderous, bigoted, hate-filled, false, inciting, or sensational. While these kinds of stories may be considered by some a sure hit that would increase readership or ratings or even generate more revenues, the damage that they could do to the psyche and wellbeing of a nation that is mired in a never ending conflict could be monumental.

In countries where there are rules and regulations that govern the press, media outlets are often cognizant that there are risks associated with running half-baked stories and the risk of libel suits and losing credibility and public trust keeps them in check. The code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists which is organized around the four main principles of seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable is generally upheld and observed.

In the absence of these checks and balances, the people who operate the media outlets that cater to the Somali people recognize that it is a free for all. Unfortunately, the Somali people will pay the price as long as the so-called Free Press continues to operate irresponsibly and with impunity.

Mohamed A. Suleiman is an educator and a freelance writer who is based in Ottawa, Canada, and can be reached @