Free flow of information crucial in troubled world

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Authoritarian governments strive to stifle the flow of information so as to create information vacuums. Those vacuums can then be filled with the despot’s propaganda and lies. The ultimate goal is to eliminate critical thinking from a society. Compliance is then enforced, and the powerful can claim they have brought “unity” to their people. Of course, in the process, the citizens lose their human dignity and capacity to search for any semblance of truth outside of approved ideas.

The Russian army might have slow going on the ground in Ukraine, but the Russian government is going full bore in its attempt to restrict information both to its own citizens but also to the outside world. The Russian government has blocked Facebook and most social media sites. It has whisked away countless demonstrators to who-knows-where.

Russia also passed a law giving the Kremlin absolute power to crack down on independent journalism. Journalists who publish “fake” news — as determined by Russian authorities, of course — can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. Independent Russian journalists have been shut down, and many international journalists are departing Russia for fear of being detained.

United Nations experts who study freedom of expression issues said in a statement from the U.N. Human Rights Council, “Russia’s recent adoption of a punitive ‘fake war news’ law is an alarming move by the government to gag and blindfold an entire population.” The statement said the move amounts to a “total information blackout” about the war.

Now Putin is chillingly calling for a cleansing of Russian society to get rid of the “bastards and traitors” who don’t support his regime.

China, meanwhile, is also a key player in manipulating global information. China keeps iron-fisted control over the flow of information on any topic, particularly now with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What happens in Ukraine — both militarily and in terms of message control — is important to the Chinese government.

China is learning a lot about how to manage news of an unwarranted invasion. That education could come in handy if/when China moves on Taiwan. Chinese authorities have given specific guidance to social media sites about what Ukraine content is allowed. Official Chinese news outlets have scrubbed reports of any pro-West material about Ukraine. 

In America, information flows more freely under the protection of the First Amendment.

It seems, however, that some Americans would be okay with a touch of Russian-style information control. Hosts of the ABC gabfest, “The View” this week called for a Department of Justice investigation of Fox News Channel’s commentator Tucker Carlson. According to Ana Navarro of “The View,” Carlson’s pro-Russian discussions of Ukraine have made him a “foreign asset” for Putin.

Not to be outdone, MSNBC news analyst and former Democratic Senator from Missouri Claire McCaskill said Carlson’s comments are “really, really close to treason.”

Actually, whatever one thinks of Carlson, he is not close to treason.

And the day the DOJ starts investigating pundits for doing punditry, the First Amendment will spiral into collapse.

Rep. Kim Schrier (D-Wash.) recently showed her confusion over First Amendment philosophy, saying in a podcast interview that anybody who didn’t blame Putin for high gas prices was “un-American.” Actually, real Americans can blame the Easter Bunny for gas prices if they choose. They would be incorrect, but so is Schrier for suggesting people can’t blame President Biden for gas prices if they feel like it.

American citizens have at least a fighting chance of learning multiple perspectives on Ukraine, and may even be able to piece together a mosaic that is close to the truth. The constitutional framers put faith in a marketplace of ideas allowing citizens the opportunity to receive multiple inputs — and for the free press and free speakers to feed that marketplace.

It’s worth remembering that Tucker Carlson successfully defended himself against a defamation suit with the argument that no reasonable person would believe anything he said.

Letting people think and speak whatever they want is, indeed, risky in a free society. Nonsensical perspectives will certainly be offered up — especially if they’re likely to be popular and generate cash for the speaker — but ultimately, a free society has to have confidence that reason will prevail.

Americans, and their leaders, must commit to that process. The alternative, as demonstrated in places like Russia, destroys human decency and reason.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

Tags Ana Navarro Censorship China Claire McCaskill First Amendment rights free speech Freedom of information Freedom of the press information control Joe Biden Kim Schrier Mass media News media Press freedom Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Russian irredentism Russian propaganda Social media Television Tucker Carlson
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