A Free Press is a Force for Peace

Matt Qvortrup head shot
Professor Matt Qvortrup

“The whole world is watching,” chanted the crowds while the police charged against them. It happened 50 years ago this month. The Chicago police were using exceptionally harsh measures to quell the protesters at the Democratic Party convention. The mostly young people were protesting against the Vietnam War. The demonstrators lost the battle of Michigan Avenue, but they won in the war of public opinion. For the whole world was indeed watching.

In the same way, the whole world was watching the US Army’s carpet bombing of Hanoi and other parts of Vietnam. The free press directly contributed to peace. Free reporting of The Pentagon Papers (as recently shown in the movie The Post)) led to the fall of Saigon.

Not, as the film showed, because The New York Times and The Washington Post were run by benevolent editors, but because the competition for good news stories created, as a by-product, the conditions for peace. But this state of affairs did not last.

Governments learned the lesson of Vietnam and 1968. In subsequent conflicts, the media’s access to war zones was restricted. 22 years later, during the first Gulf War, electronic and print media (with CNN’s legendary Peter Arnett as the only honourable exception) toed the line and re-reported only the clips preselected by the Pentagon.

In this day and age we are in danger of losing this free press.

Of course, the demise (though not quite the death) of traditional media opened the door to various social media. Assorted forms of “citizen journalism” have been credited with making The Arab Spring possible. While the uprisings in hitherto autocratic States were never quite the “Facebook” revolutions, it is incontrovertible that citizens’ access to mobile phones with high resolution cameras and the ability to post videos to YouTube, and other sites, has enabled ordinary people to perform the role that was the exclusive preserve of established networks.  

Through the use of social media, we are now (again) in a situation in which “the whole world is watching” in Myanmar, Syria, Venezuela and Charlottesville, VA.

Social media can – and has – contributed to peace and social relations, but like the traditional media during the First Gulf War, governments (even democratic ones) are trying to limit citizen journalism. In dictatorships this is done through “firewalls;” in democracies the tactics are more subtle. Often public safety is used as an excuse for limiting free speech and the right to post messages.

Both the traditional media and their social media cousins are needed to keep the governments on their proverbial toes. The ability to tell the world what is going on – to make sure “the whole world is watching” is not just a luxury of a free society. The case for a free media is as much a utilitarian one as it is a philosophical one.

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Matt Qvortrup is Professor of Political Science at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations and Academic Director of the RISING Global Peace Forum.

The theme at this year’s RISING event is “The Anatomy of Peace,”’ gathering a unique group of inspiring world-class speakers to prompt our discussions about what it takes to initiate, make and sustain peace. Internews Director of Programs Rosie Parkyn will speak on the role of media in peace and conflict at RISING.

Led by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, RISING Global Peace Forum was launched in 2015 as a partnership with Coventry Cathedral and Coventry City Council, and has since become a powerful force for global peace with events being hosted in the USA, Northern Ireland and Columbia in 2017.

(Banner image: A group of female students at U.C. Berkeley demonstrate their opposition to the war. Credit: History.com)