The deadly attack by the Islamic State on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last January was an omen of things to come: a growing campaign against freedom of the press, much of it driven by religious extremism. The result, according to recent reports, is that media freedom around the world has dropped to its lowest point in 12 years. The question now is whether those who care about press freedom understand its debt to a deeper freedom—liberty of conscience.
“Political, criminal, and terrorist forces sought to co-opt or silence the media in their broader struggle for power,” according to a 2016 annual report released by Freedom House. The problem is “most acute in the Middle East,” where governments and militias pressure journalists and media outlets to deliver their message or face demonization, death threats, or worse.
The Freedom House study confirms a report released in April by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which noted a “deep and disturbing decline” in media freedom. “The climate of fear results in a growing aversion to debate and pluralism,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders. “Journalism worthy of the name must be defended against the increase in propaganda and media content that is made to order or sponsored by vested interests.”
Syria, a cauldron of religious extremism and violence, was the deadliest place for reporters in 2015, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 14 journalists were killed, while three Syrian reporters who sought safe haven outside the country were assassinated. Press freedom has eroded significantly in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seized control of private media groups and cracked down on critics of his Islamist agenda. In China, where freedom of religion is severely restricted, “the Communist Party took repression to new heights,” according to Reporters Without Borders. And on it goes.
Lost among many journalists, civil libertarians, and human rights organizations, however, is the most salient fact—that freedom of the press is always under assault in nations that fail to respect freedom of religion. When, in January 2015, the government of Saudi Arabia punished Raif Badawi, a blogger, for allegedly insulting Islam—he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes—it was acting on the logic of religious authoritarianism. Media moguls such as The New York Times devote enormous attention to journalists harassed or threatened by thuggish regimes, but mostly ignore religious dissenters who endure far worse treatment—including beheading and crucifixion.
Western elites have forgotten how laws protecting free speech came about in the first place: they were a product of the vigorous debates over freedom of conscience during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—an argument rooted in the Bible.
The earliest champions of a free press were not Enlightenment philosophes. They were dissenting Christians, most of them Protestants, battling the political and religious authoritarians of the day. They defied the censorship regimes, risking prison and death to publish their works. They understood that religious belief—what Roger Williams called “soul freedom” and what John Locke called “the inner persuasion of the mind”—was the foundation for a host of other rights and freedoms, including a free press. “It is a woeful privilege attending all great states and personages,” wrote Williams, “that they seldom hear any other music but what is known will please them.”
Militant secularists, here and in Europe, are as guilty of neglecting these facts as militant Islamists. In both cases, the results are the same: the stifling of free speech and the breakdown of civic peace. In A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, social thinker Os Guinness warns that it is “inadequate and foolish” for liberals to focus on the negative notions of hate speech and hate crimes to the near exclusion of religious freedom:
Without acknowledging the cornerstone place of religious liberty, Europe will not be able to accommodate both liberty and cultural diversity; Muslims will not be able to maintain the integrity of their own faith under the conditions of modernity, let alone learn to live peacefully with others; and America will never create the truly civil and cosmopolitan public square that the world requires today.
Herein lies the intellectual conceit that ultimately cripples the case for free speech and a free press: the pretense that freedom of conscience is expendable in modern, democratic societies. A grudging toleration of religious belief is no substitute for robust religious freedom and pluralism—and cannot itself be sustained for long. Until journalists and other cultural leaders learn to care about religious freedom as much as they care about press freedom, their task remains imperiled.
In the end, the secularist and the Islamist will join hands in the assault on liberty.
Joseph Loconte is an Associate Professor of History at the King’s College in New York City and a Senior Editor at Providence. He is the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.
Photo Credit: Political cartoon from when Egypt’s Mubarak attacked the free press in February 2011. By Carlos Latuff via Wikimedia Commons. Placed in public domain by artist.