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In Defense of a Fragile Freedom

When the world-wide-web burst upon our lives, it disrupted practically all the models for social relationships known until then. Coinciding with the current financial crisis, the media were faced with a complex process which has led them to question their very survival. In the following article, read during the awards for the XXVII Ortega y Gasset Prizes for Journalism, Juan Luis Cebrián recognizes the delicate moment the world of communication, and the written press in particular, is going through. And if the latter’s survival is not entirely guaranteed (certainly in its present form), at least the presence of a journalist is unquestionable because this figure is still essential for the development of a healthy, lasting democracy.

November 10th, 2010 saw the bicentenary of the first decree in the history of Spain, which approved the abolition of censorship and the implementation of freedom of the press. The Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in revolutionary France in 1789 were the most direct precedents of that code, which would later be included in the articles of the Constitution of 1812. The first article of this decree declared the freedom of corporations and private persons to “write, print and publish their ideas without previous censorship”. So, right from the start, freedom of the press was established as the absence of any kind of impediment that might prevent the publication or broadcasting of news or ideas that might not satisfy the relevant authorities.

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This freedom of the press was one of the most important achievements of the revolutionary program of the liberal bourgeoisie, and its consequences turned out to be formidable. In line with the way of thinking of the times, liberals considered that freedom of expression was the basis of freedom in general. So, for over two centuries, the right to inform and be informed, to communicate news and opinions freely and, in general, the right to freedom of expression of thought has been part of the array of political and individual rights of citizens in democratic Constitutions. All these things, well known for over two centuries, have still not been properly understood by the powers that be, and it is not uncommon to come face to face continually with the inquisitorial indignation of some of these authorities, or of all of them at the same time when they feel affected by the exercise of that freedom.

Democracies are regimes based on public opinion. The formal expression of this opinion is transmitted in the polls periodically, by means of a universal, secret vote. But for that act to be free and responsible at the same time, citizens need to be informed and have to be able to know and distinguish between the various electoral options, so as to be able to analyze them and have an opinion about them.

The establishment of freedom of the press in Cadiz gave birth to a new era in the politics of this country, which saw the rise of the myth of the two Spains from the discussions between the Liberals and Traditionalists of the time, and also served to ferment revolution in the overseas provinces. Following the 1810 decree, newspapers multiplied almost by hundreds on both sides of the Atlantic; space was opened up for politics; literary and other gatherings became institutionalized and civilian and solidarity movements proliferated, not all necessarily under the wing of much-abused Freemasonry. All in all, citizens began to feel they participated in power. Writers and intellectuals, who had taken refuge in other genres until then, sought a more effective and urgent medium in journalism to publicize their ideas and personalities. Alcalá Galiano, Mesonero Romanos or Larra are good examples of this in mainland Spain, while overseas, those in favor of independence founded publications in which they clamored for freedom. José Fernández de Lizardi, a descendant of colonists in New Spain and author of the first modern novel in Latin America, published his newspaper, The Mexican Thinker, under the protection of the freedom proclaimed on the isthmus of Cadiz.

In it, he bravely criticized the slave-owning regime of the colony and proclaimed himself in favor of the separation of Church and State. The Inquisition ensured that he ended up in jail. In short, journalism was born with political parliamentarians, just as it has come down to us in our time. Even though the inquisitors may wear different robes, those like myself who belong to the generation of ’68 lament the fact that the Puritanism of modern times has forgotten the saying, both romantic and sublime at the same time, that was all the rage within the walls of the Sorbonne: “Il est interdit d’interdire” –  “It is forbidden to forbid”.

With our profession having been born out of the turmoil involved in the people’s uprisings against the nobility and the clergy who supported absolutism, we journalists frequently tend to suppose that we are the representatives of public opinion. This is a statement which is arguable at the very least. More than representing it, we contribute to forming that opinion, and for the same reason it is not surprising that the men of Cadiz who wrote the Constitution should decide to set freedom of the press in the section dedicated to Public Instruction. After the triumph of the different kinds of parliamentarians, newspapers played an important role as mediators between governments and citizens, and this has been reinforced over the years with the arrival of radio and television.

Already in the mid-twentieth century, it was considered that we were living in a fundamentally media-based society, and there is no doubt as to the importance of the communication media in analyzing the exercise of power in modern democracies. But for the last couple of decades, that view has changed completely. When the worldwide web burst upon our lives, it disrupted practically all the models for social relationships that we had known until then, and now, coinciding with the present financial crisis, the media are facing a complex process that is leading them to question their very survival.

Since the birth of the Internet in 1989, the information society has traveled a long and fast road, developing with gigantic steps practically all over the world. With the spread of electronic mail, we first had Web 1.0 focusing on communications and business. It underwent its first crisis at the start of this century when the bubble burst and caused the failure of the dot-coms. Then we had Web 2.0, made up of social networks based on communication between people and communities. And at the same time, peer-to-peer portals were developed allowing the online enjoyment of all kinds of content, packaged by new intermediaries that did not and do not submit to controls or fit into established hierarchies, and who allow the free exchange of files created by other persons who have invested their time and money.

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In this way, the principle of mutual exchange was introduced into the workings of the Internet, and the traditional models of business were destroyed. First, the music industry and then the information industry saw the collapse of principles that had seemed unchanging, and now all of us, governments and citizens, find ourselves involved in an almost Apocalyptic debate about the future of the media. There are those who wonder if free access to content, generalized on a world-wide scale, will signal the end of verified, trustworthy information, unadulterated knowledge, and quality films and music.

Today there are 1,200 million people connected to social networks, almost 200 million web pages and around 2,000 million Internet users all over the world, half of whom are aged between 15 and 34. The Internet has settled into our lives, and it is difficult to imagine doing without it now, to seek and obtain information, gain access to knowledge, carry out research in all areas of specialization, control public health, implement educational processes, buy products or carry out transactions. We are faced with a social and cultural change of huge dimensions which involves new values and attitudes, and also requires new models of behavior. Although it seems that some people have been taken by surprise by this process, over ten years ago we were able to foresee many of the things that have come to pass.

Numerous accounts in countless books and publications all over the world are proof of this. But, obsessed by day-to-day events and short-term results, political and social leaders, intellectuals and businessmen took no notice of the warning signs. The bursting of the digital bubble served as a reason, or pretext, for halting many avenues of research and for the world of established power to regard with distrust a new civilization that was on its way up in university dormitories in the United States and in garages where teenagers often rehearsed with their rock bands.

In the discussion about whether the new technologies were and are a threat or an opportunity to the traditional methods of communication, we all chose to declare the latter at the same time as we prepared to adopt a defensive posture. And in the clamour of battle we forgot to watch over the survival of values intrinsic to democratic societies, which are running the risk of perishing if some of the realities of globalization are not corrected.

Some may think that this presentation ceremony of the Ortega y Gasset Prizes, which has now become a tradition in Madrid journalism, is the least appropriate setting to declare something about which I am firmly convinced: the world of newspapers, such as we have known them until now, is coming to an end. They will no longer make up that type of vertically integrated industrial empire, around which all the power relationships socialized. Naturally I hope that newspapers will still exist, for I have been producing them for almost fifty years, but they have to change their nature, their business model, their view of events and of themselves, if they wish to survive. Our obligation is to control and direct that process, to advise on the changes, and it will be impossible to do that if we resist them.

The survival of the kingdom of information, its influence on people’s behavior, and the central place it holds in the organization of society are guaranteed by the new digital technologies. The survival of newspapers is not necessarily guaranteed. A newspaper is a microcosm closed off to a certain extent; it corresponds to a way of seeing things, a view of the world, which cannot be reproduced in a universe as convergent, fragmented and ambiguous as the world of the Internet. The reading community that usually gathers around a newspaper has behaviors, sensitivities, and attitudes that are different from those of online community members.

A habitual reader maintains adhesion, solidarity, and commitment to his newspaper, not comparable with what may be shown by visitors to a web page. Unless one feels imprisoned by the environment of one’s virtual community, appropriate Internet behavior is surfing, gliding over the waters, seeking out the big waves, defying them and beating them. As journalists, however, we continue to approach the web as if the old rules were still in force.

Practically speaking, there is no element of human knowledge, even of supposedly secret knowledge, from the secret intelligence agencies, which is not on the Internet. What may be missing is the technical ability to access it or the training to analyze and understand it. In this situation, a change in paradigm occurs in which traditional criteria and values are of no use in analyzing reality.

We have always thought that the credibility and rigour of newspapers was the basis, among other things, not only of their political influence but also of their economic benefits, of their profitability, or of their structure as a business. The development of news online underlines the fact that greater quantity does not mean improved quality, or more credibility, or more rigour, or more profitability.

I said earlier that many people seem to have been taken by surprise when their businesses, their professions and, to a certain extent, their very existence, were engulfed by the digital wave. In his book Vanishing Newspaper, Professor Mellor makes a prophesy: by the year 2043 written newspapers will no longer exist. Actually what Mellor says is not that newspapers will disappear but that their readers will, and there will be no one left to read them and buy them and therefore companies will not publish them.

Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and many other self-proclaimed gurus of the current situation have declared over and over again that “in the coming decade all newspapers will cease to exist”. True or not, the facts are not very encouraging: since January 2008, 21,000 jobs have been lost in journalism in U.S. newspapers and over 3,000 in Spain. In the last three years, over a thousand newspapers have shut down in the U.S., and only a relatively small percentage of these survived because they migrated to the Internet.

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Such facts serve to illustrate how well-founded those fears for the survival of the written press in Western democracies are. Some try to find some consolation by suggesting that, whatever may be said, a good reason for newspapers to continue to exist is that they have always existed. I cannot imagine -they say- having coffee at breakfast without reading my newspaper, or making do without one to train my dog by threatening him with the rustling of its pages. Moreover, I cannot ignore the fact that it is a comfortable instrument, very flexible, and can be used in a bed. It is true that throughout history, newspapers have been put to the most diverse uses.

Miguel de Unamuno used them to keep warm, placing them between his waistcoat and his shirt on chilly Salamanca mornings, to show off that he was out without a coat, and the people of my generation used them to wrap up the rubbish or to protect recently-washed floors from dirty footsteps. Anyway, it has been some time since the newspaper was the main system for transmitting news. For as many as 30 or 40 years, over 70% of the population first find out the news from television, and now, in first-world countries, almost half the populace do so from the Internet. If they are under the age of 30, that percentage rises to 60% or 65%.

The role of newspapers in the forming of public opinion by means of analysis, comment and debate, which is what they primarily do, together with investigative journalism, now has to compete with the rise of news aggregation sites, exchanges on social networks, twitters, YouTubes and their ilk. People who live under repressive regimes, escape censorship and broadcast information about events thanks to videos filmed and transmitted by means of their mobile phones. Hierarchical, vertical control of power is coming to an end.

However, the size of the messages that some of these tools permit, can only generate reflections and alternative autonomous spaces with difficulty, even if they are capable of encouraging new forms of mobilization and leadership, of planning electoral campaigns, and, in short, of engaging in politics. The Internet is a very democratic environment in every sense, very egalitarian and very participative: anyone can say or hear whatever he likes whenever he likes. Although for many people it matters little whether it is true or not.

Present-day technology in the hands of ordinary people is causing huge changes in society because the power of communication now resides to a great extent in the hands of the voters. In the 2008 presidential elections, 1,500 million videos about Obama and McCain were seen on YouTube, and only one in ten of them were political propaganda. What does that mean? That party machinery had lost control. With 4,000 million mobile phones in people’s hands (practically half of humanity connected), it is obvious that representative democracy has to change.

But there are values which should not: information is public property, administered professionally by certain persons, journalists; but it belongs to the community, to the collective of citizens, and to each individual in particular. We journalists are only intermediaries. As Eugene Scalfari says, people tell people what is happening to people. What that can mean in a world in which the very idea of mediation disappears, in which the narrator is at the same time the protagonist and first to hear the events that are narrated, is something which, as purists say, is yet to be seen. But, until that moment arrives, journalism has to go back to its sources, check the information and tell the truth.

We could ask ourselves whether newspapers will survive or not in a setting more or less similar to the current one, how many will survive and how they will be financed. But, actually, the question lies in knowing what journalists need to do, as well as editors, authorities, and legislative institutions, if we want them to go on existing. Before devising the answers to our problems, it is necessary to define clearly what they consist of: to what point do the political class and the system of democracies feel threatened or otherwise by the eventual disappearance of the printed press as a privileged place for debate in the management of shared public space. Experience shows that, on not a few occasions, those in power feel more relieved than concerned at the bad news arriving, regarding the future of the press.

For a long time now, news coverage has been neither the entirety nor the most important part of what the newspapers have given us. In the name of public opinion, they have exercised a powerful influence on the State, denouncing mistakes, uncovering cases of corruption, agitating and encouraging diversity. Today, such influence is in danger. Even now, the press is still a cultural, social, and economic phenomenon of great transcendence in the life of the community. For that reason, its end as the fourth class, previously known as the fourth estate, implies a formidable change in the workings of political systems.

Newspapers have helped to control tendencies towards nonsense both in Government and in business. In a study carried out by the World Bank in 2003, the relationship between corruption and the free circulation of newspapers per person was analyzed. The authors came to the conclusion that the lower the circulation of newspapers in a country, the higher the position of that country in the index of corruption.

In 1972, when a local Washington police patrol discovered an espionage operation in the offices of the Democratic Party, the Washington Post had just come onto the capital markets and had to face pressure from numerous sides aiming to bring to heel the newspaper’s reporters who were in charge of the investigation into criminal practices in the White House. The newspaper’s lawyers and directors warned of the dangers involved in an open confrontation with those in power, which would end up being to the detriment of the shareholders, damaging to the advertising market and putting at risk the renovation of the television licences that the company held.

Katherine Graham immediately understood that a newspaper is a mercantile company, and as such must look out for its shareholders, but also that the latter know that they are investing in something that also constitutes an organ of public opinion, and therefore its obligation is, above all else, to serve the man in the street. This is the philosophy that triumphed at the time, and today we need to ask if it is still valid, given the fashions in vogue, the new realities and the different threats posed over freedom of expression.

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The National team of EL PAÍS, which this year has received one of the Ortega Prizes, was able to uncover and report the Gürtel case of political corruption, in spite of numerous attempts and pressure from many sectors to hide the truth. For the 14 months that the investigation lasted, important political leaders attempted to cover up the truth, sabotaging and discrediting the information offered by EL PAÍS, minimizing its importance until it seemed ridiculous, and making all kinds of threats against the editorial staff. The prize for the editors of the National section of EL PAÍS underlines the contribution that good journalism continues to make to democratic liberties. Newspapers may or may not disappear but journalists, whatever their means of expression, must never do so unless we wish our democratic coexistence to become seriously upset.

Nevertheless, this social function performed by professionals in the field of journalism carries dangers that are greater than the threats from bureaucrats or the frowns of some judges. So far this year 42 journalists have already died all over the world, victims of violence. Although some war correspondents fell during and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, most of those who died were local reporters who were covering stories whose protagonists wanted them to be hushed up. Drug trafficking, organized crime, and political corruption are frequently behind these murders, to which we should add the intimidation and ravages caused by terrorist activities of all kinds.

Judith Torrea, a prize winner today for her blog Ciudad Juárez, in the shadow of drug trafficking, is one of those reporters who has learned how to defy fear and show the usefulness and versatility of the new technologies while functioning as a high-quality professional journalist, able to shake up public awareness and at the service of the reading community. The same as José Cendón, whose report, Somalia at the end of the world, trains the spotlight on the difficult circumstances in which thousands of professionals all over the world have to perform when communicating to the rest of us reality as gloomy and stark as the globalization of poverty.

Of freedom of the press, whose second centenary we are now commemorating in our country, it was expected that it would serve to spread information and encourage debate among people so that the man in the street would have enough data to make a judgment when the time came for him to do so; but it was also hoped that thanks to this press freedom, other liberties would be preserved and the brakes would be put on the arbitrariness and despotism of public authorities.

Then, as now, freedom of the press had its detractors, servile reactionaries who saw in that freedom one of the bêtes noires destined to destroy the established order and favor the incursions of ideology and twisted concepts as seen from the point of view of official orthodoxy. History shows that freedom is always something scarce and fragile, in defense of which, any vigilance is little and any effort is insufficient.

When protests pour in at the bidding of corporations, whether legal, legislative, from the established authorities or the burgeoning opposition, regarding the pressures exerted on them with the publication of news or opinions that affect the respectability of their functions, it is necessary to remember, again and again, that the function of democratic authorities is not to defend themselves from adverse criticism but to help and protect their existence by all legal means possible. Power tends to see conspiracies where there is only dissent and the regained ability of citizens to make their voices heard against what they consider to be unjust.

This is why today our pleasure is so great at being able to recognize the excellence of journalism, of a whole life dedicated to it, in the person of Jean-Daniel, whose attributes of being a first-rate intellectual, a thinker, and a man of action, have never separated him from his profession as a journalist, at which he works with the humility and lack of arrogance that is only possible to recognize in the greatest masters.

A friend and colleague of Albert Camus, who was the philosopher of modern times, in his personal and professional career, Jean-Daniel embodies the clear, faithful image of the best of our profession. Like Camus, throughout his long career he has known how to defend himself and fight the dangers of our profession, in Camus’ words: “Submitting to the power of money, flattering, popularizing, mutilating the truth with ideological pretexts: despising the reader”.

Whatever the future of printed newspapers may be, resisting the future defined by Camus’ words has been the destiny of our profession for more than 200 years. A craft that, in the end, responds to the same ability to amaze that encouraged the philosophers. Or, to express it like Larra in El Duende Satírico del Día (The Satiric Goblin of the Day), to “a desire to know everything that was born with me, which I can feel bubbling in all my veins, and which forces me more than four times a day to back myself into hidden corners to listen to other people’s fancies, which then provide me with material for entertainment for those times that I spend in my room and sometimes in bed, unable to sleep; at those times I reflect on what I have heard, and I laugh like a madman at the madmen I have listened to”.

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