Here's an obvious fact, freedom of speech, particularly political speech is the cornerstone of any democracy. If citizens are not free to criticize those who run their country, the people cannot make informed choices, which means democracy is non-existent. As "the people" lack the resources to investigate and spread information, a free press becomes the organ of the people which helps exercise their freedom of speech.
Throughout my travels I have found that the definition of "free" speech and a "free" press differ greatly from country to country. The American and Northern-European definition of "free speech" and "freedom of the press" appear to be the most robust in my experiences. Should there be any limits to "free speech" or do members of the press have a responsibility to not knowingly publish information they know to be false? More importantly, who is the arbiter of defining "fake news"? The answers to these questions are crucial in ensuring "free speech" is preserved and protected from attack.
President-elect Donald Trump has derided "fake news" and has hinted he would like to change libel laws to punish those who publish fake news. As political free speech is so vital to a society, curtailing it in any way would be problematic at best. Despite my support for unfettered political speech, I had an experience Monday morning which proved to me that not all news organizations take their responsibilities seriously nor do they all have, necessarily, the best intentions in mind when publishing a story.
A tragic accident occurred in the wee hours of Monday morning as a cargo plane that took off from Hong Kong crashed in a village in southern Kyrgyzstan. The plane, a Boeing 747, has had several major accidents in recent years, at least four in the last six years. Both the plane and crew were owned and operated by an Istanbul based company, ACT airlines. The company also operates under the "myCargo Airlines" brand. Turkey's national carrier, Turkish Airlines, and its subsidiary Turkish Cargo, often contract out loads of cargo to be carried by third party airlines such as the ACT. In this instance, the ACT-owned and operated plane crashed, tragically killing all on board, as well as many on the ground.
Having just flown from the United States to Istanbul myself hours earlier, on a British Airways-Turkish Airlines combination of flights, the news of the fatal crash was distressing. As with many news reports these days, the news first broke out on Twitter. It was nearly 6 a.m. Turkish time when I saw the first tweet from China's national news service. Moments later the BBC reported the same story. Following the BBC, many outlets quoted the BBC report and went with "...Turkish Airlines cargo plane crashes..." implying that a Turkish Airlines plane actually crashed. Images from the accident show a plane with no Turkish Airlines or Turkish Cargo insignia. Minutes later other news reports came out that clarified the report: The plane was not a Turkish Airlines plane at all but an ACT Airlines plane that was contracted out to carry cargo for Turkish Cargo.
Are these details important? In a world in which news travels around the globe in mere seconds, reporting the news correctly, the first time, is very important. My flight from New York was originally slated to be British Airways all the way to Istanbul with a brief stopover in London. Having been delayed during take-off, I was informed by a British Airways crew member mid-flight that I would miss my British Airways flight to Istanbul and that they had re-booked me on a Turkish Airlines flight. Perhaps because I was sleeping when she woke me or perhaps because I seemed like I had no idea what Turkish Airlines was, the crew member reassured me saying "It's the best airline in Europe." A well-earned reputation, no doubt.
Now fast forward a few hours to me reading a tweet by the BBC falsely reporting that a Turkish Airlines plane had crashed. Now fast forward a few more minutes where every major news outlet picked up that false report and included a stock image of a Turkish Airlines flight as well. What's the damage to Turkish Airlines' reputation by this false reporting? Millions of dollars? Billions perhaps?
It has been nearly 12 hours since the accident and hundreds of comments (including my own) have been sent to the BBC alerting them to their mistake. The BBC came out with another report clarifying that it was not a Turkish Airlines plane nearly two hours later, however, they never took down the original report. It is still there. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to retract and correct.