05/13/2013 03:27 pm ET

Freedoms of Press, Speech and Expression: Lost in Translation

In this age of globalization and technology, traditional and social media has transformed how information is disseminated and processed. It is almost impossible now to hide atrocities, violations of freedoms, acts of violence and hatred. However, popularity of social media has not been without some new challenges and complications.

Social media cannot replace the value of courageous journalism; it can merely assist. In some parts of the world provocative and partisan media reporting and mobilization of social media for obscure aims have proved to be poisonous by agitating grievances and fueling conflicts.

For example, before each wave of violence in Myanmar between Buddhist and Muslim communities over the last year, local media and social media played a provocative role. On its part, the international media exposed the facts and challenged the bigotry fueled at the local level. We can only be grateful to those who have dedicated their lives to exposing the truth.

Bad journalism and social media that obscure or manipulate the truth should only be challenged and corrected by good journalism and social media, not by censorship or criminalization, except cases of incitement to imminent violence particularly when it comes to inter-communal relationships.

When incitement has a religious component, blasphemy laws have not proven to be the remedy. The only long-term remedy could be promotion of inter-communal trust, empathy and a sense of togetherness among followers of different sects, different religions and between believers and non-believers. When it comes to establishing the existence of an act of incitement to imminent violence, the judiciary should have the last say based on laws upholding universal values.

Certainly, debate never ceases on the potential or desired roles of media and expectations from it. Naturally, the moment we expect media to act as the "good guys" and help advocate various lofty causes, despite of all our goodwill, we might be falling into trap of infringing upon liberties and core functions of media. At the same time, it is a fact that media institutions are increasingly championing lofty causes on their own right. Whether we realize or not, media institutions are actually promoting good causes on a daily basis from protection of environment, the fight against human trafficking, to advocacy for girls education. Media is one of the pillars of democracy, and without an independent media, we would lose ground particularly in promoting human rights, good governance and fighting corruption.

The problem starts when we call on media to take, advocate or abstain from certain actions as a result of self-censorship, a code of conduct or a legal commitment. Naturally, the media and advocates of freedom of press would not take such suggestions positively. Yet, it is also quite common that on issues related to public safety and national security, media establishments in general are voluntarily inclined to cooperate with the authorities at the expense of press freedom. It is a requirement of commonsense and could be expanded, as long as the urge comes from within. When media distances itself from commonsense, then calls for commonsense should not be seen as an infringement but as exercise of freedom of expression, as long as the media is not put under direct or indirect pressures and threats.

Whether in the least developed countries or most developed ones, journalists and increasingly social media activists are opinion leaders. Together with politicians they have the ability to shape the current agenda and narrative, perhaps even more than scholars. Additionally, social media could change or deepen certain mindsets particularly among the youth. Therefore, it is only natural and absolutely necessary that they are included at policy debates at local, national and international levels. This privileged role naturally brings with it moral responsibilities.

All freedoms, including those of press, speech and expression, are all interconnected, and there should not be a competition among various freedoms. There are no winners and losers and every individual should be allowed to exercise his or her freedoms while respecting and exhibiting tolerance for the rights of others to exercise their own freedoms.

Yet, there seems to be dissonance on how to uphold these freedoms, especially those of press, speech and expression when these freedoms are implicated in inciting hatred and violence and transgress moral, ethical and religious values.

Opposing hate speech and incitement to violence on moral grounds and expressing this opposition should be seen within the boundaries of freedoms of expression and speech. As for criminalization, it has become clear in the last few years that the minimum common denominator among the members of the international community is what is allowed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. International law goes beyond that level but has no chance of application in the USA due to its reservation on the relevant article of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is not only a legal matter but a political one, as there is heightened sensitivity among U.S. politicians and public opinion.

Throughout my career, I have seen many arguments come to the table concerning freedom of press and freedom of speech. Some clearly oppose the ability of individuals or the press to speak freely; yet others are more nuanced, discussing matters of intolerance, violence, incitement to violence, discrimination and stereotyping. When these terms are used in relation to our freedoms, they seem disconnected from what truly governs human and community day to day relations.

While international efforts establish legal protections for freedom of expression and other freedoms, it is important not to end the discussion there. We must promote engagement and dialogue that remains focused on matters of human dignity. We should search our conscience and not wait for such issues to be mandated to us.