Tuesday, December 1, 2015

freedom of the press, Vatican style

Reporters Without Borders are calling the prosecution of the two reporters who published material gained from the so-called 'Vatileaks 2' scandal 'censorship.' I'm not entirely sure about that. I'm a former journalist and have a natural sympathy for freedom of the press. But I also think that freedom has limits. And I would want to be sure that those limits were not transgressed before I agree that the journalists in this case are being unfairly treated. 

There is no question that the material they used was acquired illicitly. That in itself does not mean that they should not have used it. Sometimes this is the only way that information that the public has a right to know can be made available. The public has a right to know about what corrupt politicians or public institutions are up to; and sometimes even the activities of private organisation deserve public scrutiny against their wishes. The public would have no way of finding out this information if there were not people on the inside willing to go public. This is why we have whistle-blower laws. Sometimes it is the higher duty of all involved to make public information that some would prefer to keep private. And those who respond to that higher duty need to be protected.

Is the case here? It would seem not. No one, as far as I'm aware, is suggesting that the two Vatican insiders who leaked the material should not be prosecuted because they were whistle-blowers acting in the public interest. And if they were not acting in the public interest, then neither were the journalists. That the public might be interested in reading the story does not make it a story that must be heard for the good of the public.

Therefore, it would seem to me that the limits I spoke about at the beginning have indeed were transgressed. Essentially if those who took the information deserve to be prosecuted because they weren't acting in the public interest, then it is only fair that anyone who, knowing how the information was obtained (if that is the case here - and, again as far as I'm aware, no one is saying they didn't) should also be prosecuted. Whether they are found guilty or not is a matter for the courts to decide once the evidence has been heard and the applicable laws considered. Freedom of the press is a necessary good in a healthy democracy; but it isn't the same thing as the press having the freedom to do whatever they like and say their actions must go unchallenged for the sake of freedom of the press. 

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