Words at war
Under normal democratic conditions, power tends to expand and consider that the free press is always disaffected or never sufficiently enthusiastic about its positions. Of course, even in journalism there are those who are willing to intervene in politics beyond a civic commitment to attempt to honestly explain what is happening. But tensions do not invalidate the fact that free journalism is a form of democratic resistance and permanent tension between press and power is not only healthy, but has a system of guarantees, which may be imperfect but are nonetheless real. Free press and freedom of expression are factors that help development in every sense or, in the words of Indian-born Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, no democracy with a free press suffers mass hunger.
In any political regime, control of information and thought is a lever of power in order to have a monopoly on reason, on correct discourse, and, just as words are controlled by those in power, words are also the basic instrument of critical thought and one of the pillars of individual and collective freedom. Debate, the use of free speech, is therefore a pillar of democratic society which must be consciously preserved. In our world, even in privileged Europe, it is almost a luxury. As Walter Lippmann wrote: "Freedom can be allowed where differences are not relevant [...]. When men feel secure, heresy is cultivated as the spice of life. In contrast, during a war, freedom disappears at the very moment the community feels threatened." Lippmann defines exactly what is happening these days when we witness a degradation of freedom at the hands of war propaganda and the imposition of silence or the appearance of poisonous euphemisms when talking about "special operations" to define a war or an invasion.
These are difficult days for journalism in general, which has to flee from the lies constructed by either side, from monolithic worldviews and algorithms that reinforce prejudices. These are complex days, and these are particularly tragic days for press freedom in Russia. If journalism has any usefulness, it is the continuous and unfathomable search for the truth. So unsearchable and so necessary that it led André Gide to write: "Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who have found it". He wrote it coming back from the Soviet Union.
When this higher law of seeking the truth puts at risk not only one's own life, but the very existence of journalism, the darkness is so dense that it becomes unbearable: this is what is happening throughout Russia, where the practice of journalism or of any kind of free thought was already a high-risk activity. This week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, the publication of Russian journalistic resistance, has decided to close shop. Seven of its reporters have been killed up to date, among them Anna Politkovskaya, who explained extensively the methods of Putin's barbaric war in Chechnya: the brutal devastation of Grozny, so reminiscent of Mariupol these days. Some of Novaya Gazeta's journalists have taken refuge abroad and its press has come to a halt. Like so many others before it.
When he received the Nobel Peace Prize "for his efforts to defend freedom of expression, a precondition for lasting democracy and peace", Muratov denounced that journalism in Russia was going through "a dark valley". More than a hundred journalists had been accused of being "foreign agents" and "torture was a common practice" Novaya Gazeta has decided to suspend publication after several warnings from the Russian communications regulator. It closed after its second warning, before a third which meant their license being withdrawn and the newspaper being shut down forever.
Some readers must be thinking that propaganda is not only Russian. They are right. But in a democracy there is a fighting chance. In a democracy like ours, to form a mature public opinion requires a generous debate. Only when a mature public opinion has a cohort of accepted facts from various points of view do we get to what the Anglo-Saxons call the "manufacture of consensus", which allows us to move forward in common progress. Let us not forget that democratic health depends on the quality of this debate, on the words and the capacity for consensus of each one of us.