How the Media Could Regain the Public's Trust

The obvious starting point of any discussion of journalism and human rights is the global state of freedom of expression and media freedoms. Today’s trends are strongly against these basic human rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that of the scores of journalists killed in recent years, many were murdered to silence their independent investigations. Journalists in authoritarian states are regularly beaten, fined, and jailed, and sometimes murdered in situations suggesting official complicity. Writers and journalists carry the onerous burdens and risks that freedom of speech entails when they publish what they think and know—in many cases, what they’ve uncovered about human rights violations and corruption. In turn, human rights defenders depend on media to expose violations of human rights norms.

But another dimension in the relationship between journalism and human rights deserves attention, namely the obligation these professions share to strive for objectivity in the face of political trends, ideological pressure, and one’s personal opinions. The global trend is against the freedom of expression, but it is also against objectivity; throughout the Western world, journalists are now often criticized for inserting their personal political biases into reportage and gratuitously editorializing. And here is where the human rights community may be of some help: its tradition of human rights documentation might help shore up journalistic ethics. 

The ethical foundation of the international human rights community that emerged in the 1980s and 90s was largely informed by members of the Soviet dissident human rights community, who began their human rights campaigns behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s. The most influential members of this community were intellectuals—natural scientists like physicists Andrei Sakharov and Yuri Orlov, and historians like Ludmilla Alexeeva. Sakharov, in his Memoirs, wrote that the main principles that should inform human rights practice were “nonviolence, Glasnost, respect for law, and a conscientious attitude toward information” (my emphasis).

Respectful of principles that inform meaningful scientific investigations, the main Soviet dissident human rights defenders approached human rights issues inductively; they looked for facts and verified the facts they found in pursuit of building defendable fact-based conclusions, rather than looking for facts to support a priori conclusions. The Helsinki Final Act of 1975 provided civil society with an officially sanctioned role in monitoring signatory governments’ compliance with the human rights standards to which they’d committed themselves. Actual state practices needed to be systematically measured to assess compliance.

Dissident human rights defenders considered government officials to be intrinsically biased in this respect; their interest in defending the state left them without the objectivity needed to accurately measure their own human rights records. Members of civil society, on the other hand, if they were nonpartisan and maintained a “conscientious attitude toward information,” had the advantage of an independent, disinterested posture vis-a-vis the state. Dissident human rights defenders thus insisted that facts about human rights could be discovered independently of the beliefs and dispositions of observers. They affirmed their belief that truth exists and can be discovered.

The Moscow Helsinki Group, founded by Orlov and Alexeeva in 1976, sought to assist the Soviet government in complying with the human rights obligations it had taken on when it signed the Helsinki Act of 1975. They saw themselves as neither the state’s defenders nor its opponents, but as independent observers, who were independent not only from state pressure, but also social pressure, and indeed, their own prejudices. They were ready to say and write what they found, and they were willing to risk severe legal penalties, including show trials, exile in foreign lands or to the gulags, torture, and even death. The dissident movement’s underground human rights reports were not exciting to read; they were generally dry, austere, and unemotional descriptions of politically motivated arrests and trials, torture and ill-treatment in detention, and the expedient distortion and subversion for the law of behalf of the Communist Party. Despite resembling more laboratory notes than literature, the reports embodied a disciplined distance from politics and could thus serve as a foundation for accurately assessing the Soviet Union’s abrogation of its human rights obligations, and for the credibility of the dissident human rights movement itself.

Today, the Western world is more and more dominated by opinionated media commentary and also by acute distrust of what is published as factual news. These feelings about public information resemble the alienation felt by people behind the Iron Curtain.

Human rights campaigns were—and still should be—about protecting fundamental freedoms, not about promoting specific political or “social justice” goals, that is, what citizens would do with their freedoms: Yuri Orlov said that human rights are “not about what, but about how.” The Moscow Helsinki Group was an island of integrity in the deeply compromised USSR. Twenty-five years after its founding, the Moscow Helsinki Group organized an anniversary celebration and gathered past and present members, as well as human rights activists from around the former Soviet Union. A Russian human rights lawyer addressed the crowd, and with tears in her eyes, said, “In you, we Russians have something to be proud of.” Another speaker joked that if he had seen the phrase “Moscow Helsinki Group 25 Years” in the past, he would have thought it meant a prison term.

Another main source of dissident human rights discourse was Czechoslovakia’s Charta 77 movement. According to philosopher Jan Patočka, a luminary whose thought informed the movement (and who eventually died after a brutal police interrogation), a human rights campaign needed to be an “apolitical act.” Russian and Czechoslovak human rights activists put a red line between themselves and political opposition movements.

Human rights defenders who have taken on the approach of the Moscow Group, Charta 77, and other dissident formations in the post-Cold War era have almost always been unpopular, even reviled in their societies, especially for trying to protect the rights of members of political, religious, and sexual minorities who enjoy little public sympathy.  Criticizing state practices to officials in international forums and media, they are often branded as disloyal, even traitorous. And some human rights campaigns have failed to maintain political neutrality: some have been fronts for political campaigns seeking power. They’ve ignored human rights violations by governments they favor while exaggerating those of their opponents. In the transition to democracy, the rigid ethos of the early human rights defenders was hard to maintain as they found new opportunities to enter political life. The Helsinki Committee in Poland had a rule that any member elected to parliament would be expelled. But human rights activists have often been compelled by feelings of moral and social responsibility to enter politics; they’ve not been content to gather and present data on violations of human rights and have concluded that they must work for political or regime change to end such destructive practices. 

Human rights advocates trying to hold authoritarian states to account and seeking greater respect for fundamental freedoms by rigorous documentation of human rights violations are commonly called mercenaries, “foreign agents,” extremists, and, especially since 2001, “terrorists.” What links these epithets is the specter of their alienation from their nation, government, and society. Human rights advocates, following the Soviet dissident template, have chosen a path of cosmopolitan solidarity as champions of people, devoting themselves to the abstract principle of innate or natural freedom that cannot be compromised by feelings of political loyalty and social or collective pressures. The human rights advocate, in ideal-typical form, is an individualist, responsible first and foremost to him- or herself in adhering to a scrupulous devotion to the truth. Indeed, human rights movements during the Cold War felt they were struggling to establish the very idea of truth, and truth itself in what Vaclav Havel called a process of political and cultural decontamination. Intellectual integrity and freedom meant freedom from ideological distortions, even freedom from one’s own passions.

Today, the Western world is more and more dominated by opinionated media commentary and also by acute distrust of what is published as factual news. These feelings about public information resemble the alienation felt by people behind the Iron Curtain. Hardly any publication has a reputation for political neutrality and populations organize their thoughts on the basis of ideologically driven reportage. Political and social thought sinks deeper and deeper into intellectual ruts and is more and more cynical, void of what Tocqueville called the “lofty ideals” that animated American public life in the past. The public seems more and more inclined toward accepting conspiracy theories and frightening predictions. Much of this is correctly attributed to the internet, a largely open space where rules that in the past enforced standards and selectivity do not apply.   

Media political bias is rightly derided. But the bigger question seems to be whether our post-modern political culture can sustain a posture of political detachment—the same posture that gave the information supplied by the Soviet dissident human rights defenders its intellectual and moral credibility. A revival of politically balanced journalism is required to improve public understanding of issues and to hold public figures to account and to encourage rational discourse about policy issues upon which a functioning democracy depends. But to stimulate a revival will require more than hectoring about bias. It will require public respect for those who seek a professional life insulated by discipline from the allure of ideological conformism and who assume the burdens of independent thought. Like a life in science, or human rights defense (at its best), it can be lonely and alienating. But when guided by the same ethos, journalists can partake of the grandeur and nobility denied them in this age of intellectual politicization.