In the name of freedom

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“In a free state, tongues too should be free,” wrote Erasmus in “The Education of a Christian Prince.” Almost 500 years have passed since the Dutch Renaissance humanist wrote his 1516 handbook for rulers and the principle of free speech is more cherished and carefully guarded than it has ever been. But at the same time, that very freedom is presenting challenges that Erasmus could never have envisioned.

Ever since British Parliament refused in 1694 to renew the Licensing Act, which required texts to be submitted to censors so they could permit the printing of pamphlets or books, the freedom to express thoughts without censorship and the freedom of the press have been basic rights. However, the power to say or write whatever you see fit is proving a stern test of democratic ideals. Over time, other laws have been enacted – laws of libel, slander, contempt, privacy and confidentiality – to balance the greater good inherent in the right to free speech with the equally necessary rights of the individuals to protect themselves from falsehoods and malicious attacks. Now, while contending with questions of how absolute the right to free speech should be, we are pondering another aspect: Should those who speak or write be allowed to conceal their identity?

The brutal and deplorable murder of journalist Sokratis Giolias has stoked this debate in Greece. Giolias, the head of news at Proto Thema radio and for many years part of the investigative teams of more high-profile reporters, was also one of the journalists behind the anonymous blog “Troktiko.” By far Greece’s most popular web log, Troktiko was a sensation that spawned numerous copies and even prompted some of the media’s big guns to hoist their grimy flags up the Internet’s mast. But nobody was as good, or at least as popular, as Troktiko, which boasted an inconceivable 1.4 billion hits until Giolias was gunned down outside his home on July 19 in a hit claimed by the Sect of Revolutionaries terrorist group. On July 24, his Troktiko partners said they were too upset to continue and suspended the blog.

Troktiko’s meteoric rise and dramatic demise have brought into sharp focus the differing views on the validity of anonymous blogs. It’s almost an impossible debate to have in the shadow cast by a man’s murder, particularly when his killers have the gall to link his death to the content of his blog. Nevertheless, important questions are being asked and it’s right they should be posed – questions like whether the author or authors of a blog claiming to be a source of information should be allowed to hide their identity. If we are not privy to a person’s, or group of people’s, beliefs; if we do not know who is backing them; if we cannot tell whether they have a specific agenda or if we are unaware of their background, should they be allowed a public platform?

The simple, immediate answer should be: “yes.” Anonymous blogs are a significant tool in the effort to build a more transparent, aware and open society. They offer citizens the ability to speak directly to others without the interference of the powerful – the state and the media, for instance – who control the conventional channels of communication. Blogs give people, be they whistleblowing civil servants in Europe or pro-democracy protesters in Iran, the opportunity to turn the tables. But blogs exist on the technological cusp of a very fine dividing line, where unfettered opinion can very easily become unsubstantiated rumor-mongering or barroom bragging.

A good example of the power and usefulness of an anonymous blog was Night Jack, an online diary kept by a British detective constable, in which he gave a unique insight into his job and provided commentary on the decisions made by his superiors. The blog was such a success that it won the Orwell Prize for political writing last year. Soon afterward, its author, Richard Horton of the Lancashire Police, was exposed by a newspaper. He committed grave errors in describing specific cases he had been involved in and giving advice to readers about how to react if they were questioned or arrested by the police. The Times argued successfully in court that it was in the public’s interest for readers to know who this man was. The judge in the case ruled that blogging was “essentially a public rather than private activity” and that bloggers had no automatic right to anonymity. What the Night Jack case made clear was that bloggers who are emboldened by their cloak of secrecy and stray from their original mission of being reliable, honest and necessary sources of information undermine the concept of anonymous blogs and free speech.

Troktiko, like so many similar blogs in Greece, was gripped by this illness. Its team of writers felt that because nobody knew who they were, they could publish anything about anyone. The site became a mixture of regurgitated snippets of news from other sources and unsubstantiated rumors presented as facts. Often these were pointed allegations that brought into question the motives of those posting them and the purpose of the blog itself. Although it billed itself as delivering a blow to the marriage of convenience between business and political interests and the media, Troktiko resembled nothing more than the ugly offspring of this questionable relationship, publishing claim after claim about the very same journalists, publishers, businessmen and politicians.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. The futility of blogs like Troktiko was confirmed this week when whistleblowing website Wikileaks – which relies on contributions from anonymous whistleblowers — released to three newspapers tens of thousands of US military documents that indicated the extent to which the West has lost its way in Afghanistan. The impact of these leaks around the world underlined that there is no substitute for fact, regardless of whether it is made public by the conventional or new media and whether people put their name to it or not.

“If journalism is good it is controversial by its nature,” said the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, who would have every reason to remain anonymous given his site’s tendency to anger the US military with the information it publishes. For Troktiko, controversy became an end in itself, not a by-product of its investigative work. Its frequent exchange of vitriol with other sites or personalities and the publication of foul-mouthed comments by readers reduced the blog to an electronic manifestation of a schoolyard slanging match between teenagers.

Whether anonymous or not, bloggers who want to stitch their way into the fabric of the information society face a severe credibility test. Those who see themselves as challengers to what they like to term the “dead tree” media (newspapers and magazines) should be aware that they can’t hide behind the technological curtain of the Internet. They will be exposed if they rely on just gossip and opinion instead of facts and genuine reporting.

Tongues, or in this case keyboards, should be unfettered, and anonymous if necessary, but even Erasmus would now accept that having the freedom of speech does not also mean you are free of responsibilities.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on July 30, 2010.

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