Sunday, 26 February 2017

Publish and be blessed!

In a number of countries in the world, press freedoms have been curtailed. The regime in charge shuts down hostile newspapers, TV and radio stations and controls internet access. In many countries, the president is sure of a docile and subservient press. Many regimes over the years have relied on propaganda to keep control and some continue to do so. Now, in this age, “fake news” is being circulated by a variety of people with a variety of motives.

Freedom of speech is central to the Bahá’í approach to the world. In the Bahá’í Writings it states: “At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views.” Bahá’u’lláh, about Whom a lot of false information appeared in the newspapers of the day, stated: “The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world, endowed with hearing, sight and speech. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires... They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” In other words, it is the duty of journalists to report only the truth, as far as they are able.

One of the distinctions between dictatorships (whether of the Left or the Right) and the “free world” is the freedom to say what you like. Dictators live in their own reality bubble, only hearing what they want to hear. Democracy runs on a different principle, where people have different approaches to the problems of the day. The principle of free speech ensures that some measure of reality creeps into every politician’s diet of news. But the freedom of speech we are familiar with in “free” countries can be improved, and taken to greater heights. Not only should it be channelled down the path of truth, but what is published should be free from prejudice. Furthermore, in Bahá’í eyes, it should not cause actual offence: “Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart! Beware! Beware! lest ye hurt any soul! Beware! Beware! lest ye deal unkindly toward any person!”

People should be ashamed of publishing things which they know not to be true. As mentioned above, there has been much talk recently of “fake news”, and plenty of examples. A lot of these have been on social media, such as Twitter or Facebook. We have the odd situation of a world in which information instantly appears in an abundance of channels, but in which those who publish and circulate falsehoods have created a situation in which it is not immediately obvious which things can be proven as facts, and which are simply “alternative facts” (!) made up by somebody on a whim.

Bahá’u’lláh saw the potential of newspapers as promoters of justice and as champions of the oppressed: “O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world! Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears… investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.” But not every newspaper or magazine has such a pure intention. In recent years, a magazine called on cartoonists to lampoon the Prophet Muhammad, recognised by a fifth of mankind as a Messenger of God. This clearly overstepped the boundaries of moderation, tolerance, compassion and respect. The result was widespread offence and a number of horrific revenge attacks, including the one on the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine.

What is printed, broadcast or typed should reflect the right of the individual to free speech, which should be the freedom to speak one’s mind according to one’s conscience, and should be based on respect for others. If you can do that, then publish and be blessed!