At a time when traditional democratic freedoms are in question across Western societies, the Nobel Committee chose to award the 2021 Peace Prize to two journalists for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
Over the past decade, Maria Ressa, CEO of a digital media company, has tirelessly documented the authoritarian nature of the Philippines government’s murderous war on drugs. Meanwhile, Dmitry Muratov has fought for freedom of expression as editor in chief of a Russian newspaper which has had six of its journalists murdered. The newspaper’s allegiance to professional integrity and fact-based journalism have made it an important force in combatting corruption, police violence and electoral fraud in Russia. Both journalists have also documented the abuse of social media in spreading fake news, harassing the opponents of the powerful and manipulating public discourse.
These timely awards are a reminder that totalitarianism, whether described as being of the left or of the right, is the constant wolf at the door of democracy. Vigilance is required to protect the basic freedoms which are preconditions for this democracy and thus, for lasting peace. In turn, a more complete understanding of these freedoms requires a thriving Christian worldview which recognises the individual greatness and dignity of every human being in the eyes of God. It is not that the foundational freedoms are intrinsic only to Christianity, but that they are fundamentally human in a way Christianity has always acknowledged.
I hear you murmuring already that we don’t have journalists of that calibre in Ireland, professionals who promote freedom of expression! Our media’s inability to call power to account has been demonstrated time and again in the handling of the Covid pandemic during the past year. The absence of a critical media eye, you say, might have been excusable during the first months of the pandemic but not now – almost two years later. Instead, the beating of the fear drum by our media has been relentless, destroying all attempts at rationality. When we most need power to be held accountable, our professional journalists are nowhere to be seen.
But perhaps it is not journalism’s fault alone. The recent disability centre sex-abuse scandal in Donegal brought home to us again our national inclination to appear not to see or respond to what is happening before our eyes. The scandal continued for close on twenty years, just as the ‘Grace case’ before it, or the Leas Cross scandal before that, and we can go all the way back to the cruelty of a Mother and Baby homes era.
We understand the reasoning. ‘I can do nothing about it’, or ‘I will have to pay an unnecessary price if I get involved’, or ‘someone else should do something about it’, or ‘it is all the state’s or the HSE’s or the church’s fault!’
Over 150 years ago, political philosopher John Stuart Mill warned us: ‘Let not anyone pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.’
Telling the truth is everyone’s business, not just the responsibility of one profession. Defending freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of conscience is also everyone’s business.
Following the brutal attack on businessman Kevin Lunney, which resulted in long prison sentences for the perpetrators, the parish priest of Ballyconnell had this to say: ‘A line was crossed; the Rubicon was crossed, and I felt this is far too dangerous and I’m a total hypocrite if I don’t take a stand on this…I did really believe that someone was going to be killed….There’s a bottom line in terms of morality and when wrongdoing and violence come into play, I think I had to take a stand and I’m pleased I took a stand, and I will continue to do that.’
Freedoms are things we have by virtue of our very being. They are not gifts of the state to be granted or removed at the whim of any cultural elite or indeed on the basis of a majority vote. They are needs we have in order to flourish as co-existing rational creatures, and the denial of which undermines peace in society. Some people will undoubtedly misuse these freedoms, as our own experiences of social media discourse will testify, but to deny their existence is to slip further into the maws of totalitarianism.
We learned in 2021 how fear can be used to paralyse us. Let 2022 be the year in which we – that is, each of us within our own significant sphere of influence – take our future in our own hands and not wait around for others to save us.