Friday, December 02, 2005

Fredom of speech and freedom of press

When we want to make sense of what’s happening with freedom of speech and freedom of press in Russia we should make clear some basic premises. First, freedom of speech (or of expression) is the right of an individual. I – personally – have the right to speak whatever I like or to express any opinion possible. Press is nothing but a means that serves my personal freedom of speech. Not the other way round. Press is an institution that provides me with all necessary information I need to form my opinions. In some cases I pay them directly to get the information, sometimes I pay indirectly (TV gets money from advertisers that in their own turn include these expenses in the price of products), sometimes I don’t pay at all (blogs) and in some cases some “kind” government or NGO does it. Anyway, my freedom of speech should be unrestricted as long as I don’t maliciously abuse the rights of others.

It is true for all ‘natural’ human rights. Freedom to cook – freedom of grocery stores. Freedom to eat – freedom of restaurants. Freedom to travel – freedom of transportation agencies. Freedom to sleep – freedom of hotels.

For example, I have the undisputable right to eat and freedom to cook whatever I like, from any ingredients I like and with whatever cooking utensils I choose. Thus, grocery stores should be free to provide me with whatever products I fancy. At my home I also enjoy an undisputable freedom to treat my family, my friends and my guests with the fruits of my cooking exercises. And I hate the idea that some government inspector would try to suppress this freedom of mine (as long as cyanide is not my spice of choice).

But the moment I open a restaurant my personal freedom of cooking will be seriously limited and restricted by the government. When my friend asks me for a recipe of my bortscht I can say, “It’s my little secret” but in my restaurant my clients have every right to demand the answer. Government inspectors have every right to make bio-chemical analysis of my pelmeni, to control the quality of ingredients and to close down my outlet if they find rats there. In the same way freedom of press doesn’t mean that a newspaper has the right to defame, to libel or to slander simply because libel restricts my freedom of speech. It forces me to form wrong opinions. My freedoms – freedoms of an individual – always have priority over freedoms of commercial (or no-profit, irrespectively) organizations.

Next, if freedom of restaurants is here as a means to exercise freedom of eating, then it should adapt itself culture, religion and values of the people. Not the other way round. When 90% people are vegetarians but 90% of fast-food chains aggressively promote beef hamburgers, it could only mean that (1) restaurants owners are morons who refuse to make their outlets profitable or (2) they don’t give a damn about profits because they have their own agenda. Their activities could be financed by American Association of Free Butchers, for instance. Freedom of restaurants means that even when in the whole country there are only 50 people who like Thai food, the government shouldn’t prohibit opening of a single small Thai restaurant.
Let us go on with the freedom of cooking metaphor a bit further. Let us imagine that in some country in 1917 the power was taken over by the Party of Vegetarians. The idea of vegetarianism is very attractive and scientifically grounded. Then there was one wise German who in his book “Das Kooking Buch” proved beyond doubt that vegetarianism is the future of humankind and that total victory of vegetarians is inexorable historic necessity. Party of Vegetarians banned all protein containing foods. Even possession a single egg was punished by death. Some fifty years later Vegetarians allowed such products as milk or eggs but meat was still banned. People who doubted vegetarian ideas were sent to asylums. How can anyone in his right mind support the act of gorging flesh of murdered animals?

But one day the people lost all patience and overthrew the power of vegetarians. The Age of Freedom broke out. Freedom of eating and freedom of cooking. There were three major fast-food chains in the country that used to feed 100% of the population. They sold boiled broccolis and mashed carrots before. Now they started to sell hamburgers. Pretty soon people began to notice that the quality of those hamburgers was abysmal. New owners made hamburgers of rats, dogs and cats; they fed customers with rotten freedom fries and mildewed milk. Thousands died, millions got sick. But any time someone protested he was called the enemy of freedom and a supporter of evil ideas of vegetarianism. Freedom of eating was a sacred cow of the new regime but they made no difference between freedom of eating and freedom of fast food chains to use any means they see fit to make profits.

Some five years ago after another velvet revolution meat eaters lost total control over cafes, restaurants and grocery stores. At last people got an opportunity to eat whatever they like, be it broccoli, fish, bortscht or even hamburgers. Yes! There are dozens of very small outlets where hamburgers are served although most of the people hate them. Not that hamburgers per se are bad but the guys who cook (and cooked) them are. It seemed that only dishonest, corrupt, greedy and sleazy people could make hamburgers. Honest men are exempt from that profession.
Today the state of freedom of eating is not perfect at all. There are still a lot of problems sometimes very ugly ones but in general everyone can find a restaurant of choice with his favorite cuisine. 70% of population prefers traditional products, 15% are vegetarians, 10% have no definite preferences and only 5% like hamburgers. Unfortunately the most rich, powerful and ambitious organization in the world today is McDonalds. :-)

12 comments:

Megan Case said...

Nice analogy, but do you really think most of the news media aren't under Kremlin control?

I'm not saying it's any better in my native US, where our "free" press bows to the Bush administration out of fear of being labeled unpatriotic.

And what do you have to say about the new limitations on NGOs? It seems that the new legislation affects even domestic, non-political ones. I think it's sad and scary, when to my eyes what Russia needs more than anything is a strengthened civil society and organizations to help care for its most vulnerable members.

Dan Ford said...

It is a great analogy, but I doubt Ms. Case's "solution" of a "strengthened civil society and organizations to help care for its most vulnerable members" would be the best solution.

Here in the United States, where I'm writing, it really isn't a case of the "free" press bowing to the Bush administration, either. The "mainstream media" can be shown with alarming regularity to be overwhelmingly liberal. So, because Ms. Case's logic is faulty in regards to our U.S. media, I suspect her logic in regards to a "strengthened civil society and organizations to help care for its most vulnerable members" is faulty as well.

The solution is actually very simple: You - YOU! decide which restaurant you will eat at. You're the market. You find quality, and you eat there. Even if you open up your own sidewalk shop - and I have seen them on the streets of Moscow, and it's a wonderful sight! - you control the quality you ingest.

No one else needs to decide it for you. In 1917, the vegetarians decided they were correct, and militantly shoved the carnivores out of the market. But 70+ years of enforced vegetarianism did not dull the peoples' taste for meat, and the appreciation of quality was not at all lost.

In fact, if I might be so bold, possibly in no other culture has an appreciation for the quality of meat survived against all odds as in the Russian culture. They have it in them to be great - GREAT! - cooks, and they will never be forced to be vegetarians again, I think. They may choose it, if some silver-tongued devil proves that the "logic" of an illiogical system can ever hold sway in public discourse.

But I think the Russians are quite fond of meat these days, and they'll fight to keep the right to eat it in whatever way they choose.

It's the market, Ms. Case. No other power - not government, not "strengthened civil society," not "organizations" - can supplant or foster an individual's right to choose meat.

The Russians - and the Americans - need to just remember that they are still free to choose the meat they eat. It may be hard to get, but it's there. The bad restaurants will cease to exist. The good ones will rise to the top and succeed.

All you have to do is choose.

Konstantin said...

Another point from my metaphors on freedom of speech and freedom of eating (cooking) is that activities of institutions that provide information (or food) should be transparent. I sincerely don’t understand all that fuss about “restricting” freedoms of NGOs in Russia. First, I see nothing wrong that NGOs should report where their money come from and how they spend them. Human Rights Watch declared that after amendments to the law it would be able to work in Russia. Does it mean that it can only work when their books are kept secret? Second, on one hand it’s known that there is no civil society in Russia but on the other hand there are more than 450 000 NGOs registered in this country. Does it make sense? It does. Three thirds of these NGOs are mini-laundries for dirty money. It’s very simple. You register a “Society for Helping Stray Dogs in St. Petersburg” as a PBOYuL no profit organization and tax collectors don’t bother you with checking you books because you don’t have any books. It’s a very nice loop hole but HRW somehow never mention it or rather say it’s an “excuse”. As it happened a million times before nothing would happen to NGOs like HRW or AI. They use the opportunity to get hysterical about human rights restrictions but they never will say a couple of months later, “Hmm. We were wrong. It was a false alarm.” But dirty sediment of their campaign is already here. This way – step by step – Russia is becoming a tyranny and Putin – a ruthless dictator. The same method was successfully tried in Kosovo and in Iraq.

Andy said...

First of all, I have to agree with everyone above, that your analogy is a very good one! It certainly prompted a wry chuckle or two from me.

I think you have a very good point about the need to restrict money laundering NGOs (of which there are many in Russia), and I'd welcome any legislation which might better achieve this. And I certainly don't have any objections to NGOs being forced to declare their sources of income.

But there do need to be very careful safeguards to ensure that the government isn't able to unduly influence the freedom of real NGOs. And, from what I can tell, these don't really exist. The law seems designed with the added purpose of ensuring that the government retains such a level of control over NGOs that it can effectively shut down those that oppose it. Which is clearly not constructive.

Finally - and just because I'm an obsessive nitpicker at heart, Tom's argument about Megan Case's logic doesn't really stand up very well. Objectively, just because someone's logic is flawed in one area doesn't in the slightest mean that it will be flawed in another area.

I can do two maths questions - mess one of them up horribly because my logic goes awry, but get the second perfectly correct.

Andy said...

Ooops - sorry - not Tom's argument - Dan Ford's.

Sorry Dan!

Anonymous said...

The analogy between Soviet Communist's party and vegetarians is rather alarming.
-Vegan Reich

Konstantin said...

The analogy is between communism = vegatarianism and Soviet Communist party = a radical vegetarian organization that believes in possibility of forcing people to right eating habits against their will.

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