Latin: /'vɒks pɒpjʉliː/ VOICE OF THE PEOPLE

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Media at War" by Nicolai Haussamer

When nations are at war, we turn to the media to give us, what we believe, is a truthful and unbiased account of the events taking place in the world. Without the internet, television, newspapers, magazines, radios and countless other forms of media, we would be somewhat lost in confusion and ignorance of that which happens around us. However, sometimes what we are told to accept as the truth or adopt as the right perspective is cleverly manipulated to indoctrinate certain beliefs, not shared by the general public and potentially detrimental to a nation at war, and so the clash between the freedom of expression and various other rights and freedoms enter the fray.

When we talk about war, we are discussing conflict. Not an argument or a debate; war means bloodshed. It determines who lives and who dies. During war a constant threat exists towards the common man on the street and the welfare of a country as a whole on a much larger scale. One issue which has become prevalent in the world is the censorship of the media during times of war, id est a government's restriction of certain articles, photographs or broadcasts which may be made public. The word "restriction" immediately aggravates human rights activists and other liberals who believe that, given any set of circumstances, freedoms should not and can never be forfeited. While their argument may remain valid this is, however, only one side of the argument.

In the context of South Africa, which is not presently at war (on any international level anyway - fueds between political parties are a different matter), it is relatively easy to conclude which arguments would arise, should the media be censored by government during a war. As previously mentioned, there is the view of the rights activist, or more realistically, the freedom activist. After all, the only problem which these members of the public can advocate against is the restriction of the freedom of expression, nothing else. Section 16 in Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa states that, "everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research." From this is seems only logical that the media should have the freedom to do as they wish and publish whatever they see fit.

Yet the fact that this is only a freedom is pivotal in the argument for media censorship. Before this argument can be fully understood, a clear distinction has to be made between rights and freedoms. While there is a rather fine line between the two, there is a fundamental difference. Rights are something which all people in South Africa have, irrespective of nationality, race, gender or even legal status. A freedom, on the other hand, is the power to act without imposed restraints as one wants, but, importantly, is subject to limitations or complete removal. To clarify: everyone has the right not to be subjected to slavery or forced labour, meaning that, given any condition, nobody in our country may be forced into labour intensive tasks if it is not their will. Everybody also has the freedom of trade, occupation and profession, however, one cannot trade vast quantities of abalone acquired and possessed illegally. So it should be clear that rights have to remain in place, no matter what, while a freedom is subject to being limited, changed or removed.

What remains is the analysis of the argument from the side of the government, which is also valid given the above clarification of rights and freedoms. As explained in the introductory paragraph, war means conflict; conflict means life and death. Everyone has the right to life, and as a right, this supersedes the freedom of expression. In all likelihood, the question on the reader's mind is something along the lines of, "How do the two correlate?" It seems outlandish to make such a strong statement without sufficient evidence as to why it is important, so it needs to be expanded and explained by reference to:

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

It is necessary to adopt the perspective of the common man while his country is at war. Suddenly, life has changed. Everything has become more difficult. Inflation and taxation has increased to accommodate for the excessive use of resources and an increased national defence budget, and this means a lower quality of life for the common man earning (hopefully) the same salary as before the conflict. This, naturally, causes the man to be upset or angry, but there is nothing he can really do about it. At the end of the day, when he reclines in front of the television, the anchorman with the optimistic smile reassures him that his country is one step closer to ending the conflict and making life better for all, and so the man can feel better with the reassurance that things will improve; life will get better, eventually.

If the media has full freedom during times of war, a potentially cataclysmic problem could arise. With the freedom of expression in full swing, those whose beliefs stand against the war and the government would have their views broadcasted, their horrific photographs displayed and attempts to turn the general public against the government printed. In turn, this lack of faith in the government's course of action would result in division within a nation. Gradually people would begin to listen to these arguments and reason that the government is acting, as they see it, incorrectly. During a conflict, there is only one way for the public to effectively convey such a belief to the powers that be: protest. Whether in the form of strike action or destructive marches through the streets, people would gather in mass and abandon their jobs, and thus their necessary contribution to society. From this, the government would be fighting on two fronts, making it a lot more difficult to sustain the welfare of their country. In fact, the potential exists for a nation to collapse from the inside, as various sectors shut down as a result of infuriated, dissatisfied protest. In its weakness, the country remains unable to defend itself and so it is attacked or invaded and countless civilian lives are lost.

Everybody has the right to life, and as such, it is the government's mandate to ensure, by any means necessary, that this right is upheld. From the previous analysis it is evident that in such a scenario, the government will have to protect the citizens of its nation from themselves. This may sound ludicrous, but the majority of people do not have the higher order understanding required to see that is of utmost importance not to have a massive movement against the government while their country is actively at war. Even if the reasons for the war are illegitimate, it is better for the nation to remain undivided.

The right to life supersedes the freedom of expression. Expression is a dangerous thing which threatens the lives of a nation's citizens when the nation is at war. While governments should always do their best to allow freedoms to be exercised, there are more important rights which have to be upheld and so perhaps it is, in fact, better to allow media censorship during war. Ideas which promot division, when set free in the public domain, lead to division. A country cannot uphold itself when divided. After all, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."


  1. This is just too long to read. A tribunal is needed for something like this, not when someone writes something bad about the ANC.

  2. A. Just because you do not have the resolution to read it all, that does not mean you should dismiss it solely on the grounds of its length. It is a very good article (and i'm guessing not wholly uninspired by our debate - eh nicolai), well reasoned and articulate. I myself found it interesting, and its length only let it give full consideration to the intricacies of the issue.

    B. Tribunal - let me give you the dictionary definition of tribunal tribunal |trīˈbyoōnl; trə-|
    a court of justice : an international war crimes tribunal.
    • a seat or bench for a judge or judges

    Are you trying to say that he should write an article for an as of yet non-existant panel of judges? While a matter such as this would be discussed by a policy making body if it were considered, could you please suggest how that applies to a Somerset College, Student JOURNALISM context?

    C. The matter was discussed in general, the ANC and a South African context was simply a part of the argument.

    Here's an idea - maybe you should read it again.

  3. I agree with Michael.