Freedom of the Press

propaganda digest - the lying truth

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions,
as the truth is of systems of thought"

John Rawls

The lecture on freedom of the press held a few years ago (here the transcript is published), intended and intends to underline the function of debunking that the "good" press (so it has been indicated) should do, or rather, must do. This intention of truth accompanies that freedom as its constitutive element which is often – if not very often – betrayed. The current experience of the "worst" journalistic communication is that of television programs of information or analysis which, with reference to belief or religious minorities, often betray the truth twice, given that they present themselves as a journalistic inquiry or article of debunking. "The news told in these columns are not really false but included in a "wrong story": something is reported with alarmism as an exceptional event (...) and instead is the simple, normal and not problematic outcome of certain conditions (therefore the fact is true but explaining the causes, one sees that it is not alarming); or enemies and programmatic plans are identified where there are simple causalities or contingencies that have no regularity and repetitiveness … in common, both in the rhetoric of alarmism and in that of conspiracy, the construction of a dangerous threat, the construction of a distorting narrative." (Anna Maria Lorusso, Postverità, Editori Laterza, 2018, p. 61)

It is in particular against this "false" and "deceptive" debunking that the right to the truth of every citizen and everyone arises, as well as the need for its effective legal protection. In fact, it is the truth that alone can be translated into social justice and the history of freedom of the "good" press really proves it.


Lecture by Fabrizio d’Agostini held on 4th January 2015
(International Freedom of the Press Day)

Like all the rights of freedom that do not establish what their content is, freedom of the press is a difficult and controversial right of which, at the same time, it is no longer possible to do without, being one of the rights that characterize the age just passed, the second half of the 20th century, the "age of rights", and still nowadays they characterize the new century.

It is a right that imposed itself slowly, through a troubled and often bloody history, only a Western one.

The beginning of the history of freedom of the press is technological rather than ideological, and can be set in 1450, when Gutenberg, in Mainz, invents the movable characters, the lathe and the ink to print and he prints 180 copies of the Bible: a technological fact that has changed the world starting to make it smaller.

The history of freedom of the press is necessarily intertwined with other stories. In particular with that of being able to communicate one’s thoughts without suffering consequences and this last story has its pale beginning in England in the Agreement of People of 28 October 1647 which, for the first time, with few articles, places limits on the absolute power of the Sovereign and, immediately after having affirmed the right to freedom of religion, establishes: "After the current Parliament will be dissolved, no one can ever be subjected to proceedings for what has been said or done in the recent public disputes, …”.

In 1763 Voltaire publishes the Treaty on Tolerance. Here, the Treaty is of interest not so much for the link with the right to freedom of religion, but because the first part of the Treaty appears to be the first “modern” investigative journalism and it is also the first known case in which it is not the application of a law, a rule of law, or Treaty, but, driven by the Treaty, it is the public opinion that conditions the power and imposes the review of a trial. Voltaire tells of the trial against Calas family, a Calvinist Huguenot family accused of the killing of one of the sons and the brother because intentioned to convert to Christianity. All family members and a friend are involved in the trial. At the outcome of a trial of endless prejudice, the father was convicted, tortured and executed. Voltaire examines the factual assumptions of that trial, the evidence, the reasoning and denounces the injustice.

Under the pressure of public opinion, a new judgment recognizes that it was a suicide and rehabilitates Calas, the daughters closed in the convent are returned to the mother and the exiled son returns free to go back to his homeland.

It is the age of enlightenment, and the enlightenment here and beyond the Atlantic Ocean begins to create and promote the rights of freedom as human, natural and irrepressible rights. A sort of redemption of the natural law, a barrier against tyranny.

That of the rights is an advent, not without wounded and dead people, but Western history takes a direction that will no longer abandon.

In the Bill of Rights, the declaration of Virginia rights, dated June 1776, the term "freedom of the press", section 12, appears for the first time. "Freedom of the press is one of the great cornerstones of freedom and can never be limited if not by despotic governments.”

Pennsylvania follows immediately after, art. 12, "People have the right to freedom of speech, to write and to make their feelings public; therefore freedom of the press cannot be limited.”

The North American constitutions will powerfully influence the European politics and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, at the outcome of fiery discussions and debates, the France of the bourgeois revolution constitutionalised the freedom of the press. In fact, article 11 of the Declaration provides that "The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious rights of man; every citizen can therefore speak, write and print freely, except answering for the abuse of this freedom in the cases determined by law.”

By now the Saturday gazettes and newspapers are multiplying and, born in England, spread throughout Europe and America.

At the end of '800 (1898), by the pen of a great writer, the Aurore newspaper (socialist newspaper) published what can be considered the first real judicial inquiry. It is the "J'accuse" by Émile Zola, an open letter to the President of the Republic that traces the story of the false accusation of betrayal ascribed to the Jewish captain Dreyfus and the false trial that in 1894 had led to the conviction of the captain to life imprisonment in the Cayenne.

“J’accuse” is a very violent attack on the hierarchies of the French army and ends with a pounding sequence of "I accuse" with the name and surname of the officers who – only for anti-Semitism feeling – had invented false evidence and hidden true evidence.

Zola undergoes a trial and is convicted, but that article causes Dreyfus’ trial to be reviewed and, in 1906, the Supreme Court rehabilitates the captain and reintegrates him into the army.

It is the force of the press when it takes on justice.

But the press also has another great historical function which is to create unity of peoples and intents.

It would not be possible to understand the formation of that cultural unity – that North American civil religion born at the beginning of the 20th century – without the Saturday gazettes or the sheets of the newspapers arriving in every place and in every land of that immeasurable continent that had taken in and was still taking in English, German, French, Spanish refugees and settlers ... a thousand religious confessions from the English puritans to the German Amish and a thousand languages.

In the years before the Second World War, also due to technological reasons (the rotary presses), are above all the stories of the appendix and the Sunday strips that characterize the culture of North America ... It is the Hard Boiled Literature, the Pulp: from Hammet (Falcone Maltese) to Chandler and to Cain (The postman always rings twice).[1]

It is for the industrial revolution; it is for the Press and the rotary presses that we can begin to talk of mass culture and post-modern (the term is used for the first time in 1934 by an art critic).

And it is also at the beginning of the last century that emerges, with more evidence than in the past, the often terrible, destructive force of the press.

Of course the choices are always of the men, of the journalists, but the press, periodic or daily, becomes a docile instrument of power, propaganda and unscrupulous exploitation of human passions, both with commercial advertising and with the political, racial and religious one (merchants of chaos).

In 1920, the Times of London publishes the "Protocols of the Elders Wise Men of Zion", one of the most famous anti-Jewish documents, referred to as "the complete text of the Jewish program for the conquest of the world”.[2]

The year after, the Times itself, apologizing, will recognize that it is a clamorous fake of the Russian secret services with an anti-Napoleonic function, but still in 2015, the Protocols are part of the Hamas statute and still poison the spirits.

It is in those years at the beginning of the 20th century that Simone Weil, nell'Enrancinement (The First Root), denounces the great damage that the newspapers can cause if unscrupulous and devoid of responsibility towards human beings, and soon after the philosopher Popper, in far harder tones, accuses the newspapers of infamy because of their lack morality.

But something new is happening.

On 6 January 1944, before the American Congress, Roosevelt pronounced the "Speech of the four freedoms" on which, as pillars, to found the society that was to emerge from the Second World War and "The first freedom (for the first time it is not religious freedom), is freedom of speech and expression all over the world ", freedom followed by freedom of religion, freedom from needs and freedom from fear.

The horror of the Second World War urges the peoples of the earth to a big hug. The embrace is called "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" signed on 10th December 1948 by the UN General Assembly. 48 States signed it and 8 were those that abstained themselves.

At Article 19 the declaration states "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right not to be harassed for his opinion and to seek, receive and disseminate information and ideas through any means and regardless of borders.”

Among the signatories also Afghanistan, Burma, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey …

Abstained, the countries of the Soviet bloc (Visinsckj asked for the bloc that freedom should not be extended to Fascism); South Africa (equality of human races) and Saudi Arabia (right to change religion).

Thus the freedom of the press as a mean of spreading thoughts, ideas and intentions, in theory now appears rooted and accepted, no longer with reference to the single nation, but to the whole of humanity. The relationship is no longer between peoples and their governments, but between States.

In theory, because in practice the right to freedom of the press has always clashed with the power and with the sometimes very harsh consequent censorship, and the signing of the Declaration (according to the intentions of Roosevelt’s widow, should have been a real pact and not a simple declaration); rather than creating a reality, he wanted to indicate a goal, a purpose for humanity.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century the idea of freedom rights prevailed.

The freedom to communicate and spread through the press one’s ideas is recognized in all the constitutions or fundamental laws of Europe and has become a qualifying element of declarations, covenants and constitutions of the community.

Finally, the “Chart of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union” (Nice 2000; Lisbon 2007) at article 11 provides "Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right includes the freedom of opinion and the freedom to receive or communicate information or ideas without interference from public authorities and without border limits. The freedom of the media and their pluralism are respected.”

The revolution of the 80s has further emphasized the good and the evil of the performance of that right and the world has further shrunk. Computer science has created new and unexpected participations and unions considered impossible, to such an extent that this union – which from a political point of view the world cannot have nor has it really partially – is instead in progress on the internet (the world is not still fully aware of this).

Meanwhile, it is in 1993, under the impact of the "clean hands" trial that the code of ethics of Italian journalists is undersigned.

As already mentioned, the positive force of the press is when it takes on justice. We must not forget it.

"Deadline U.S.A." with an extraordinary Humphrey Bogart, editor of a newspaper that struggles to prevent its closure by carrying out an investigation into the murder of a girl by a powerful boss of the organized crime that tries to stop the investigation in anyway. The last scene of the film in black and white takes place late at night just outside the headquarters of the newspaper and is the face to face between the director and the boss, with the rotary press in the background that incessantly churns out thousands of copies of the newspaper which contains the conclusion of the investigation and the proof of the guilt of the boss. It is at that moment and in front of those thousand and thousand copies coming out from the rotary press that Humphrey Bogart, hard-nosed, pronounces the phrase that will remain famous: "It's the press, the press, darling, and you cannot do anything, anything.”

Twenty years later, in 1972, investigative journalism will involve the White House: it's the Watergate.


[1] “The pulps arrive everywhere, in the shady areas of American society. Their particular industrial structure (so much for "line"), i.e. the accepted rules of hack writing and pseudonym, keeps in the shade talents that will be rediscovered much later: even many famous writers have gained experience writing short stories for few money, refining their own art in the discipline; in addition to the famous names of Hammett and Chandler, with their all too well-remembered private eyes Sam Spada and Philip Marlowe, at this point we should speak of Lovecraft, Dent, Howard, Heinlein, Cain, Stout ... "(History of American Literature, AAVV, Bur, Essays, p 406).

[2] In 1881, it was founded in Paris by the Jew Isaac Crémieux (Grand Master of French Freemasonry) in collaboration with the other Jews Charles Marx, Engels, Lassalle and a Jewish Defense Staff, an association that took the name of "Universal Israelite Alliance" ". On this occasion it was decided that the Synagogue had not understood the true meaning of the word "Messiah". "Messiah" was not meant to mean this or that child, but the collectively assumed Jewish people, who, becoming aware of their ethnic superiority, had to conquer the world and bend it under the yoke of the Jewish race "(protocols of the wise elders of Zion, introduction - 580)