The Thin Line Between Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech

Published May 26th, 2021 - 02:00 GMT
The Thin Line Between Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech
Working in the media industry has become more challenging since social media became part of our lives. (Shutterstock: Abscent)

At times of major political events taking place in the world, questions over how political stances can affect people's professional careers often resurface, with not so many clear answers.

How many times have we recently heard about journalists being sacked from their jobs over their personal political views? Probably more than we can count.

Ever since social media has become an integral part of everyday life, it has become increasingly hard for people to refrain from voicing out their opinions on current events, whether ones that have direct effects on their lives or not.

However, there have been numerous instances of people being informed that they have been terminated from their jobs over their political tweets or Facebook posts, with the justification usually being "violating impartiality rules."

In recent weeks and in light of the developments between Palestine and Israel, a number of journalists, mostly western, have reported losing their jobs over either online words or past activism they were involved in, such as AP's Emily Wilder, who has opened up about being sacked over her pro-Palestine activism and social media posts.

Meanwhile, BBC has recently responded to online comments protesting a now-deleted tweet by its journalist Tala Halawa, in which she seemed to praise the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler for exterminating the Jewish population of Europe amid WWII, in what has become known as the Holocaust. BBC's spokesperson clarified that while the past tweet was written before Halawa joined the organization, the BBC is investigating the incident and taking it very seriously."

In 2010, Lebanese-American CNN news anchor Octavia Nasr was terminated following a tweet in which she mourned the death of top Lebanese Shia cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, one often linked to Hezbollah.

Such events are urging us to question whether journalists' personal opinions expressed on their own social media accounts count as a violation of the impartiality rule needed in newsrooms or not, especially if it does not affect their reporting.

They also highlight the difficulty of tracing the history of social media posts published by each and every individual joining a media organization and whether past comments count as a violation of objectivity or not.

Is it fair for journalists to feel that their careers are at risk if they have a personal take on a certain political matter?

On the other hand, is it fair for organizations', regardless of their activity, to make sure that their employees do not express hostile sentiments based on religion or ethnicity, similar to the Hitler-supporting statement example?

While it is hard for us to find the answers to such questions, it is important to keep asking these questions and have the conversation over the line that should be drawn between journalists' unquestionable obligation to the truth and impartiality within their professional careers and whether or not they have a right to express their personal political stances on social media just like everyone else.

It is worth noting that individuals working in other entities can sometimes face certain rules of refraining from any political commentary online, like people working in diplomacy or certain government departments or even banks. Conversations should also examine whether such employees should be entitled to their right to speaking their minds freely outside of work or not.

What other professional sectors warn their employees from posting political views online? Do you think organizations with such strict rules are right to apply them or not?

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