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Editors should be slow to censor

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Citizens 4D Highway organisation has launched a campaign against the three daily newspapers for failing to carry a paid advertisement containing a satirical depiction of Dr Wayne Kublalsingh’s hunger strike. The campaign has taken the form of paid full-page advertisements critical of the media houses, a Web site where all of the organisation’s advertisements can be viewed and visitors can sign up for free T-shirts, and a dramatic, silent protest outside Express House and Newsday’s offices.  

So what is the fuss all about?  

The ad in question took issue with Dr Kublalsingh’s claim to have gone without food and water for so long. It did so by pretending to report on the discovery of a human reptile, indigenous to Trinidad, with the ability to absorb water and nutrients through its skin. The reptile was given the sobriquet “The Kub-lal,” and it was said to “flourish if not nourish in the limelight” and was to be found on the pavement daily, usually outside the Prime Minister’s office.

The Newsday and the Express refused to publish the advertisement. The Guardian published it on one occasion, but then pulled it because it was thought to be “a vulgar ad-hominem attack that literally dehumanised their opponent.”

Mind you, its essential content had been reported on in both the print media and in generous segments on the electronic media. Moreover, even before the ad was submitted, all newspapers had carried statements by the Minister of Health questioning the genuineness of Dr Kublalsingh’s hunger strike and, since then, there have been an abundance of reports, articles, and letters to the editor in similar vein.  

The offence, therefore, does not appear to be the failure to publicise the views which Citizens 4D Highway wished to communicate to the public, but the manner in which they chose to do so, that is to say, by way of parody and satire, rather than by a straightforward presentation of facts which challenged Dr Kublalsingh’s claims.

I think the authors of the ad could hardly deny that they intended to ridicule Dr Kublalsingh, and that the way they chose to do so went way beyond the genteel and bordered on the disrespectful and the insulting. It is one thing to question Dr Kublalsingh’s bona fides by pointing to the evidence. It is another to suggest that he has taken reptilian form.

The authors accuse the newspapers of unequal treatment. They point to a number of articles and newspaper reports supportive of Dr Kublalsingh which they consider to be in bad taste, if not defamatory, and question why those pieces and views were not banned. They contend they are being silenced and their message “snuffed out.” They assert that the media should not have the right to reject ads because they are determined, arbitrarily, to be “in poor taste.” They claim protection from the media.

It has been said many times, and it is worth repeating, that the right to free speech must include the right to say what someone else might think offensive, or distasteful, or even hateful. But it is important to appreciate that the right to speak our minds is not so fragile a thing that we must be purposely offensive just to demonstrate that freedom of expression is meaningful.

The other important thing is that, if I have the right to offend, I must allow for the right of my target to feel offended, and to respond in a similar offensive manner. That entails taking responsibility for my offensive remarks, which cannot be done if my speech is delivered anonymously. I find it cowardly that no human actor has come forward to bear the backlash for the authorship of the offensive ad.

Now, as much as the authors of the ad have the right to be distasteful, they have no right to require newspapers to publish whatever they want to say. 

The business of the journalist is to present a balanced account of every issue and to allow a proper ventilation of competing viewpoints. We judge them by the standards they attain in this regard. But newspapers are allowed to establish their own editorial policies. Some are more liberal than others. Some choose one political party over the other. By and large they ascribe to the tenets of free speech. They are in the business of giving free rein to expression. But that does not mean they are obliged to publish every and anything.

It will be recalled that most if not all English newspapers refused to republish the Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist. The UK Guardian said famously that it believed “uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend.” “Forbearance is the currency of peaceful coexistence,” said the Independent. 

That newspapers have the right to publish what might be considered to be in poor taste does not mean they have to exercise the right. They are entitled to protect the good name of their papers.

What constitutes “poor taste” is necessarily subjective and will be determined by the editor of the newspaper. That is unavoidable. In this case, the views of the Citizens 4D Highway, if not the offensive manner in which they chose to express them, were in fact published. I can therefore hardly see that they need any protection from the media.  

But precisely because what is distasteful is subjective, editors should be slow to censor, lest the speech which fails to see the light of day be determined by the degree to which the particular editor considers what is said to be plainly wrong or misguided.
If it were me, I would have run the ad. Sometimes the poor taste with which an opinion is expressed is of more value because of what it tells us about the character of the author. 


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