An avowed cosmopolitan, Wieland considered FREEDOM OF THE PRESS one of our greatest priviliges, without which the foundation of our contemporary culture would not be possible.
Today, we enjoy the normal flow and exchange of information through significantly more media than just books or newspaper.
In some countries, however, such a source is not only manipulated but, in the worst cases, even cut off.
This reading should make us aware of how valuable and also endangered our freedom is. Not only are writers, in the broadest sense, responsible for imparting information in a reliable and truthfull manner, but every free, informed citizen must assert his/her right to truth in order to preserve this "cultural asset".
These texts, published between 1785- 1788 by C.M.Wieland in his literary journal "Der Teutsche Merkur" (The German Mercury) have renewed relevance and impact against the backdrop of current global media and political development.
THE ORDER OF COSMOPOLITANS
AND THE RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF WRITERS
I am only an individual, insignificant citizen of the world. On the world stage of tragic-comic or comi-tragic political events, I play neither a large nor a small role. I also have the honor of being A HUMAN, and as such I am COMPELLED to take part, more or less, in the affairs of humans. So, I can’t help but participate in the highly interesting and, in a certain sense, only great drama from the second the curtain is drawn until this moment - passing myself off as one of the most attentive and cordial spectators.
By virtue of the order of which I am a member, I consider the rights as well as the responsibilities of humans to be of one and the same meaning.
Nature - in the words of a cosmopolitan - endows each human being with innate attributes that determine what he will be. And the correspondence of things places him in circumstances that are more or less favorable for the development of these attributes.
The cultivation and perfection of these qualities, however, is entrusted to him. It is up to him to improve upon what nature has omitted or inadequately provided and to elevate his attributes into craftsmanship.
It is in his own interest. There can be nothing more pertinent than striving to attain, as closely as possible, one’s own style of perfection, which to a certain extent is boundless.
Since the course of his life doesn’t depend solely on him, since he should prepare to be made use of as deemed fit by the world’s supreme ruler, his first duty is to develop OPTIMAL CABABILITIES.
To a great degree these capabilities depend on practice, diligence, effort and persistence and thus, on our own will. This is what cosmopolitans call VIRTUE, whose ideal they use to gauge the value of individual persons.
Hence, we must differentiate between WORLD INHABITANTS and WORLD CITIZENS. The first applies not only to all people, but also to the whole ladder of animal species descending beneath them.
But a CITIZEN OF THE WORLD can only be someone who, in the narrower and nobler sense of this term, has been rendered competent by his prevailing principles and convictions through their true accordance with nature.
A principle under the first law of your order is:
That in the moral order of things, all education, all growth, all progress towards the perfection of things, should be nurtured and obtained through natural, gentle and moment-by-moment imperceptible movement, nourishment and development.
All sudden shifts in the balance of one’s powers; all violent means to achieve in LESS TIME through LEAPS that which would otherwise develop much more slowly in accordance with the orderly course of nature; all actions that are severe to such a degree that the effort required and adequate to carry them out cannot be calculated, thus always being in danger of doing far more than is necessary - in short, all tumultuous results of passion in the direction of ONE-SIDED KINDS OF IDEAS and exaggerated demands, even should they lead to something constructive, simultaneously destroy so much that is good, and usually create more harm by trying to bring about great things.
With the best intentions in the world to endorse everything that is good, he is not always able to applaud and sing the praises of the actions of the heads of state - fully aware of and seriously disapproving their shortfalls, vices, blunders, inconsistencies, etc. He knows the weaknesses of the constitution, laws, police, economy, and the whole state administration on a large and small scale. He knows, perhaps, how to remedy these weaknesses, and wants nothing more than to see them remedied. So we can be sure that he will never, out of self-serving or patriotic motives or under some pretext, disturb the peace, nor seek to bring improvements into effect by unconstitutional and violent means.
Never has a cosmopolitan intentionally taken part in a conspiracy, a riot, a call for civil war. Nor has he approved of these or similar means for IMPROVING THE WORLD, to say nothing of recommended or publically tried to justify them.
The cosmopolitan is, by virtue of his essential responsibilities to his order, always a
peaceful citizen. Even if he cannot be satisfied with the current state of the community.
The cosmopolitan follows all the laws of the state in which he lives, aware of their apparent wisdom, justice, and public benefits - AS A CITIZEN OF THE WORLD and subjugates himself to the rest out of necessity!
He has good intentions towards his own nation, and is well-disposed towards ALL OTHERS. He is incapable of basing the prosperity, reputation, and greatness of his homeland on the deliberate exploitation and suppression of other countries.
Cosmopolitans are equally distant from both extremes: They don’t want to give humans the PRIMARY ROLE in the universe, nor do they want to stake their existence on a meaningless game of chance, a dream without purpose, meaning or coherence.
They are persuaded by the MERITS of REASON. A person, unheeded in his seeming smallness, not just as organized living matter, is not simply a BLIND TOOL OF FOREIGN POWERS, but is, instead, a creature with a mind and will himself a force of action.
RESISTANCE is one of the duties of the order. But only if it occurs through lawful means. No weapons are allowed them other than the weapons of reason.
And these they must use with as much wit, prudence, astuteness, and strength as they command, to the best of their ability for a good cause.
In THIS type of war, on the defense or offense, they must show as much understanding, wisdom, steadfastness, frankness, and tenacity as possible.
When they have done everything, then they have done nothing more than their cosmopolitan duty.
But as soon as they see that the flaming heads, who take the lead as their betters and oppressors, have set a course that through its natural consequences is bound to deliver a violent shock to the state… as soon as it comes to paying the high price for these targeted improvements at the cost of domestic bliss, prosperity, and the lives of hundreds of thousands, then they retreat.
When the voice of reason, demanding moderation, is no longer heard, they prefer to refrain from all action rather than run the risk of defying their purpose and unintentionally causing harm. They only become active again when it’s time to rebuild, according to a better plan, that which - in the frenzy of fanatical party spirit and the angry struggle of arbitrary power, with an offended humanity seeking liberation and revenge - had to crumble.
Cosmopolitans are called WORLD CITIZENS in the truest and most eminent sense.
For they view ALL PEOPLES on this earth as branches of a single FAMILY, and the UNIVERSE as a STATE, wherein they, along with countless other rational beings, are CITIZENS, in order to support the PERFECTION OF THE WHOLE, under the general laws of nature, so that each, in his own special way, is diligently striving towards personal prosperity.
The entire secret lies in a certain natural kinship and sympathy expressed among very similar creatures throughout the universe and in the spiritual bond whereby truth, goodness, and purity of heart link together noble people.
I don’t know of any stronger bond defining a collective that surpasses, in terms of order and harmony, all other human societies.
“The purpose of the order is: To reduce the sum total of the evils that oppresses humanity, as much as possible, without causing harm to one’s self, so that the sum total of goodness in the world, to the best of one’s ability, may be multiplied.”
Cosmopolitans claim there is only one form of government no one can object to, and that is: the regime of REASON. It entails:
Reasonable people being ruled by reasonable superiors, under reasonable laws. It goes without saying that the word “reasonable,” here, in its true meaning, designates the real ACTIVITY of reason and its full application and its entitled dominance over the animal part of human nature.
In ancient times, justly termed the childhood of the world, reason usually functioned only as an instinct.
Humans, still children in terms of experience - being sensual, lively, impulsive, and restless - lived for the present moment. Like children they grasped little of the future and the natural but slow consequences of the present.
Only a few ancient societies valued freedom. Fewer yet knew how to combine freedom with
civil order or the art of war with the art of peace and freedom.
Known causes lead to known actions: Despite the rapid progress of culture in individual arts and sciences, through the boosting of ingenuity, activity, persistent hard work and competitive zeal - the highest of all arts, the majestic art of transporting NATIONS into a state of bliss THROUGH LEGISLATION and governance - relatively speaking, lagged behind the most.
The bigger and better part of Europe still lies under a pressure suffocating the noblest forces of mankind. The remains of a barbaric constitution, ignorance, and the blunders of a rough and dark millennium.
Still, in a few of our mightiest kingdoms, the rights of the throne have not been dealt with, balanced carefully, or determined with regard to the basic constitutional laws of all civil societies.
There are still nations where the source of lawmaking is not common sense, but very foolish reasoning and the vacillating will of an individual, or the few who know how to empower themselves through his authority.
“...the worst of it is that we can write ourselves to death - without ridding the world of a
...still the administration of justice, as we call it, in most countries is defiled by laws that are barbaric, incoherent, or not suited to the times and conditions.
Nothing is more uncertain in many countries than the security of property, honor, freedom, and the lives of the citizens.
And all this in Europe!
In a century where art, science, taste, enlightenment, and refinement, in a relatively short time, have reached heights from which it makes us dizzy to look down upon previous centuries.
It seems that in these, fortunately, essential elements, if we are not deceived, current conditions in Europe are heading towards a benevolent revolution.
A revolution that will come about not through indiscriminate indignation and civil war, but through peaceful, unshakable, steadfast tenacity towards a responsible resistance; not through battles of passion pitted against passion, violence against violence, but through a gentle, persuasive, and irresistible superiority of reason.
In short, it will be a revolution that does not drench Europe in human blood or set it ablaze in flames, but engages in charitable works such as EDUCATING people about their true interests, rights, and responsibilities, and the purpose of their existence - the only means of achieving this aim safely and without fail.
It seems that cosmopolitans view the existing form of government as mere scaffolding that all previous centuries, in a certain sense, have worked to build.
But DESPOTISM, in their terms, is a barbaric type of rule. In order to last, it presumes circumstances and conditions that, among the enlightened nations of Europe, are NO LONGER conceivable.
However, this corner of the world, even in the days before enlightenment and culture - had never known despotism. For centuries, freedom was the element of the rough, as well as more political and educated, citizens.
All the founders of today’s European realms were leaders of free people. Against the eternal laws of reason, against the basic rights of humans stood: no waivers, no limitations, no missed opportunities to validate and address them.
The first thing that people, regardless of their government’s constitution, must demand, and what only an enlightened tyrant can challenge, is:
BEING A HUMAN BEING - and it is not possible for them to be human if they are slaves.
The most powerfully rational constitution and rule of nations is, slowly but surely, within reach. It can only be hastened by the greatest possible culture of reason, the greatest possible spread of basic truths, the greatest possible publicity of all facts, discoveries, investigations, suggestions for improvement or warnings of damages. Therefore, cosmopolitans view FREEDOM OF THE PRESS, without which none of this can be accomplished, as the true PALLADIUM OF HUMANITY. Preserved it holds all hopes of a better future. Abandoned, however, it would lead to a long and terrible series of unforeseeable evils.
A great amount of writing has come from seasoned travelers on their journeys and wanderings. They collect comments or send news in letters to friends, or rather, publish them for an audience. Since there is a growing appetite to read writing of this sort - naturally, the number of traveling writers and letter-writing wanderers is increasing daily—some would like to be provided with criteria, so they can reliably gauge the competencies of these writers and determine the limits of their freedom to disclose comments, news and opinions, in all possible cases.
This gauge appears to me to be contained in the following series of truths.
I pass them on as truths, with confidence, not only because I am convinced they are, but because I believe that to anyone with a semi-clear head who is capable of some thought, they will be apparent as such.
Freedom of the press is a concern for, and in the interest of, the ENTIRE HUMAN RACE.
To it we owe the present level of culture and enlightenment that most European nations have reached.
If we are robbed of this freedom, then the light that currently shines upon us will soon be extinguished.
Once again, lack of knowledge will soon degenerate into stupidity. In turn, stupidity will again give way to superstition and despotism. Nations will sink back into the barbarism of dark centuries. Those who venture to speak the truth, whose concealment is in the interest of those seeking to suppress humanity, will be labeled heretics or rebels and punished as criminals.
Freedom of the press is only a RIGHT OF WRITERS because it is a RIGHT OF HUMANITY, or if you will, a
RIGHT OF POLITICAL NATIONS.
And it is only a right because people, as reasonable beings, have no more pressing interest than to attain true KNOWLEDGE of everything that can, in any way, contribute to furthering their perfection.
The sciences, which are to human reason what light is to our eyes, should not and must not be enclosed within any other kind of boundaries than those which NATURE ITSELF has set for us.
The most necessary and useful of all sciences, incorporating all others, is the science of the human being.
HUMANITY’S OWN FIELD OF STUDY IS─THE HUMAN!
A task we will work on for centuries to fully and clearly complete. Cultivating a free press, promoting it, making greater and greater advances, is the objective of human studies.
In order to bring out a human’s potential, we need to know who he really is and what he has actually accomplished.
In order to improve his condition and remedy his deficiencies - first we need to know what he is lacking, and why.
Basically, genuine knowledge of humans is - HISTORICAL.
The history of nations, according to their past and present nature, is linked to facts and events, how
they are interrelated, how the actions or successes of one become the cause or origins of another. It makes up the PHILOSOPHY OF HUMAN HISTORY - a portrayal of what has befallen and
continues to befall humans. A portrayal of a continually ongoing fact that can only be arrived at if we open our eyes and if those who have had more opportunity TO SEE WHAT THERE IS TO SEE,
COMMUNICATE their observations TO OTHERS.
All contributions are to be evaluated from this point of view, whether they stem from informed and experienced men, women, travelers by sea or land, voyagers, pedestrians, learned or unlearned people commenting on geography and ethnology or making insights into human nature. Incidentally, the UNLEARNED can be keen observers and often see with healthier eyes than professional scholars.
From this perspective, we can determine their value. It is relevant for the human race, every nation, every state body, every individual that many such contributions be recorded in the general magazines of human knowledge.
A witness can, unintentionally, see inaccurately. Someone can repeat something he believes to be credible, and give false testimony. The most attentive and perceptive observer, as any human, can be misled or overlook an important fact.
It is hardly possible for texts that historically portray societies, nations, and the customs of the times - even with the purest intention of telling the truth - to be totally free of inaccuracies.
It is also possible for someone who is inexperienced or has troubling notions and inclinations to, at times, view and judge things incorrectly. But it would be absurd to conclude that one shouldn’t publicize texts that could be or become useful to the world.
Consequently, anyone who believes to know better, or is in a position to correct an author’s mistakes, is not only fully entitled, but even dutybound to serve the world by providing this knowledge.
It especially behooves every great nation, and most of all one as fine as our own, which has assembled its body of state from such manifold and disparate elements that more or less accidently grew together rather than being planned, to recognize its CURRENT CONDITION as accurately as possible.
Even the smallest contribution - on the nature of the state economy, police, civil or military constitution, religion, customs, public education, arts and science, business, agriculture, etc. and on the level of culture, enlightenment, humanization, freedom, initiatives and high aims for improvement reached by the above - disseminates its OWN LIGHT. Each and every one of those contributions deserves our appreciation.
The primary and essential characteristic of writers who contribute from FIRST-HAND OBSERVATION, is that they have a SINCERE WILLINGNESS to tell THE TRUTH.
Consequently, no passion, no preconceived opinions, no personal motive should be permitted to KNOWINGLY influence their reports or comments.
Their first COMMITMENT is to TRUTH and IMPARTIALITY.
Since we are entitled to everything necessary to fulfill our duties, so too must CANDOR be a RIGHT that must not to be denied writers of this class. They have to WANT and be ALLOWED TO tell the truth.
Accordingly, a writer has the absolute right to report on the people he observes and share with us the information, EVERYTHING he has SEEN: good, bad, praiseworthy, or condemnable.
With unfaithful imagery, showing only the sunny side, with the deficits obscured or even falsified through flattering beautifications, THE WORLD IS NOT WELL-SERVED.
No one who is accurately depicted is entitled to be offended.
POLITENESS, which prevents us from telling people about their weaknesses in public, is NOT THE DUTY of a writer, who is required to speak out about persons, or societies or countries, regardless of how big or small they are.
A nation would seem not only unreasonable but also ridiculous in the eyes of the world if it expected others to view it as above reproach and perfect from every angle.
...and would have to be totally above reproach if a reasonable observer could not find any fault with it.
Regents, who have the proper respect for their honor and position, are contemptuous of flattery and know that a person who has the heart to tell them unpleasant truths is being honest with them.
The best ruler is the one who wants to be the best person among his people.
…Certainly, such a person will have no hard feelings, if humbly told things posterity will not hesitate to disclose when it’s unfortunately too late for him to make use of it.
As long as people keep their heads, the Rousseaus, Voltaires, and others who influence the intellectual world, will be just as much creators of their century as the monarchs themselves.
The only tribute to an entire nation or community called for in this case is: with DECENT expressions, without exaggeration, bitterness, or willfulness to point out the blind spots, and to prove one’s impartiality by doing justice to its virtues and admirable aspects.
To obtain true knowledge of nations and epochs, we need to become familiar with what is DISTINCTIVE and CHARATERISTIC of a people.
Such characteristics are usually expressed more strongly in the FLAWS than in the PERFECTIONS.
Flaws are often simply an EXCESS of certain qualities that in moderation are praiseworthy, like an affected appearance is just an excess of elegance.
To NOTICE faults of this nature does not mean offending people, but giving hints deserving of gratitude on how, in one’s own way, one might become better and more commendable. An impartial observer, endowed with an astute and lively spirit, sees what people do or don’t do - their idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, and oddities - in a natural light. Without the slightest intention of making something laughable, it so happens that one can’t help but laugh or smile at the laughable.
Lucky is the country that has ONLY LAUGHABLE flaws.
If you move from a bigger country to another, where the constitution and national character or national customs are in great contrast, i.e., from a place with MILITARY RULE to a place owing its prosperity to PEACE and the art of peace, you are predisposed to take note of all the differences between the two. It is especially these traits that are the most striking. So naturally, you tend to CONTRAST one nation with the other.
Just as there is no scientific object which cannot be investigated and no belief which reason cannot illuminate - to see if it is believable or not - so too there is no historical or practical truth which we are not allowed to interdict or declare as contraband.
It’s ABSURD to make state secrets of things obvious to the world, or to reproach someone for telling the whole world what hundreds of thousands of people see, hear, or feel.
What differentiates cosmopolitans from other SECRET ORDERS is: they have no secret to conceal, nor can they make one of their principles or convictions.
The whole world may know what they think or do, and the paths they take. What kind of wisdom can we
expect from men who with solemn expressions on their faces dress and undress dolls, play blind man’s bluff, or hide needles?
Equally absurd are the apparent reasons for an alleged need to arbitrarily restrict FREEDOM OF THE PRESS.
It has been irrefutably proven that freedom of the press should have no other boundaries than those set by every writer, bookseller, and publisher under common civil and penal law.
Writings, however, the publication of which is deemed a crime in certain political nations, regardless of the degree of personal freedom there, must be so by their very nature!!!
Therefore, all texts that contain such DIRECT libel of known or clearly named
individuals, and are forbidden and frowned upon in civil legislation.
Texts that WELL-NIGH attempt to incite tumult and outrage against legitimate authorities.
Texts that are WELL-NIGH directed against LEGITIMATE state authority.
Texts that WELL-NIGH set out to overthrow all religions, morality, and civil order. All these types of writing are as punishable in every country as: high treason, theft, or assassination.
But: The small word DIRECTLY or WELL-NIGH here is not superfluous.
It is so ESSENTIAL, that all the culpability of an implicated text rests entirely on it.
If some appointed book CENSOR or civil judge were allowed to rule on a text based on his CONCLUSION or HIS type of presentation, HIS particular opinion, or HIS biases, the degree of HIS reasoning or non-reasoning, HIS technical expertise or ignorance, HIS feeling or taste, then what book would be safe from condemnation?
We know from experience that in countries with arbitrary censorship, the most outstanding books are the first to be put on the list of banned literature.
Have you ever considered what would happen if plays were censored? Which ones would be banned?
DANTON’S DEATH, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, DON CARLOS, WILHELM TELL, RICHARD III, POPE JOAN, THE DEPUTY, SPRING AWAKENING, THE ROBBERS, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, THE PUBLIC PROSECUTOR, MACBETH, MARAT SADE,
FEGEFEUER (PURGATORY) IN INGOLSTADT, THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI, THE FIRE RAISERS, MICHAEL KOHLHAAS
JULIUS CEASAR, THE SATANIC VERSES,THE BROKEN JUG,
DIE REVOLUTION IST NOCH NICHT FERTIG ...
If we leave the examination of writing that is alleged to be criminal to a judge or a book censor…It cannot be denied that they can only ban books whose author HAS committed a crime by writing it.
The only judgment of whether the content of a book - old or new, interesting or trivial - is beneficial or harmful and whether the author has reasoned well or ill should come from only one censor, namely the PUBLIC AUDIENCE.
A book cannot be suppressed by force under some pretense without violating essential rights of the Republic of Letters.
The sciences, literature, and the art of printing - the noblest and most useful of all inventions since the creation of the alphabet - do not belong to this or that nation, but to the entire human race.
Lucky is the nation that values, incorporates, cultivates, encourages, and protects these, and in the freedom which is its element, lets them live and flourish unimpeded.
Since no human tribunal has the right to decide arbitrarily how much light to provide us with, therefore anyone - from Socrates or Kant to an enlightened tinker or tailor, without exception - is entitled to illuminate humanity, in any way he can, as roused by his spirit of good or evil.
Who has the right to enlighten humanity?
Enlightenment is as much knowledge as necessary to separate the truth from the lies, always and everywhere.
All the objects of our insight are either things that have happened or ideas, terms, judgments, and opinions. Past events can be clarified if an impartial researcher examines the matter until satisfied with if and how they happened.
There is no other means to lessen this mass of misconceptions and harmful illusions that darken human reasoning.
What consequences demonstrate the truth of enlightenment?
If the overall number of thinking people eager for knowledge and light, especially those belonging to the class of people who have the most to gain from NON-ENLIGHTENMENT, keeps growing.
I don’t like to think ill of my fellowmen, but I must confess that the safeguarding of the instruments of enlightenment, which is of great concern to our people asking the questions, might lead me, against my will, to doubt their integrity.
Are you perhaps wondering whether there are admirable things that cannot endure enlightenment? No, let us not think so poorly of your minds.
But perhaps you might be saying: In some cases too much light is harmful, it must be let in carefully and gradually?
All right - but this isn’t the case with enlightenment, which serves to separate the lies from the truth, in Germany at least. Our nation is not so completely blind. It’d be a mockery and shame if, having grown accustomed to light slowly over 300 years, we could not stand the sunshine.
It is easy to grasp this as the mere excuses of nice people who have their own reasons for not wanting to be surrounded by light.
Tell me, am I right?
What think ye of this, Oh neighbor with the long ears?
No matter how you view it, you’ll still find human society infinitely less threatened by this freedom than if we treated the enlightenment of minds and human activities as a monopoly or an exclusively internal matter.
Germany, of all nations, has just cause to be a defender of freedom of the press. This country was the first to invent typography and give rise to the brave men who used it freely to liberate half of Europe from the tyranny of the Roman Imperial Court. It claimed the right of reason against ancient biases and woke out of its thousand-year slumber an independent inquisitive spirit, which steadily spread a benevolent light on all aspects of human knowledge.
It’d be a shame to take back our good deeds and stop the progress of science in the midst of its most vigorous flourishing and set unnatural restraints on enlightenment, which has given us so much good and holds so much promise for us and our heirs. The nature of the human spirit is as boundless as perfection itself, which humanity should and can reach with the help of enlightenment.
By freedom, which all people are equally entitled to, I mean the freedom from arbitrary violence and suppression.
The same obligations, for all branches of state, to adhere to the laws of reason and justice.
Unimpeded use of our powers, without any restrictions.
Freedom to think, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience in everything concerning the belief in a supreme being and the worship thereof. A freedom without which humans as reasonable beings cannot fulfill the purpose of their existence.
A freedom that is guaranteed not only through the state constitution, but one that people must be raised and taught to exercise well.
Everything we can know, we are allowed to know.
Introduction Wieland Reading “Freedom? of the Press”
The Cosmopolitan Order – on the Rights and Duties of Writers and Press Freedom
Ladies and Gentlemen,
15 journalists killed, 160 journalists and 176 online-activists & citizen journalists under arrest—the “Press Freedom Barometer” of the association “Reporters Without Borders,” after only 2.5 months, shows alarming numbers for 2015.
People are being murdered because they have dedicated themselves to fighting for freedom of thought and informing us about world events, assessing them or commenting on them—at times in a satirical way.
8 of these 15 slain journalists worked for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The attack by Islamist terrorists on the editorial offices in Paris on 7 January generated shock and outrage around the world.
An attack that demonstrated the fragility of a right enshrined in our Western constitutions as a fundamental right, namely, freedom of the press. A fundamental right that many young people in this country take for granted, so much so that they hardly ever think about it. A fundamental right, however—as revealed by the attack in Paris—that needs to be fought for anew and defended every day.
When Cornelia Sikora asked me last autumn if I would like to say a few words at the reading today in my capacity as a newspaper editor, neither one of us could have predicted the dramatic way in which freedom of the press would gain topicality. Conceivably, we could’ve all spent a nice evening otherwise; leaned back and listened to Christoph Martin Wieland’s wise ideas about freedom of the press and freedom of thought—resting assured that everything he had fought for at the end of the 18th century was self-evident in the 21st.
The first weeks of this year have proven otherwise.
The rights and duties of writers, as formulated by global citizen and cosmopolitan Christoph Martin Wieland, are as relevant today as at the time they were penned—the Age of Enlightenment.
Wieland viewed freedom of the press as a human right: A person, as a rational being, has the right to knowledge and truth.
They are the bedrock of culture and enlightenment in most European nations. Without such freedom ignorance, stupidity, superstition and despotism would soon gain the upper hand. This is the gist of what Wieland wrote in 1785 in his self-published “Teutschen Merkur” [The German Mercury], the longest-running and most widely circulated magazine of the 18th century.
He had his reasons: For Wieland himself had been a victim of censorship and book-burning.
Much of what we journalists and editors learn during our education today, the principles behind our daily work, was passed on to us by Wieland, our quasi colleague, 230 years ago.
Thus, writers should view events and topics from different angles, to prevent one-sided presentations. They must have a sincere intention to speak the truth.
What Wieland meant with this: No passions, no preconceived notions and no personal objectives should ever sway writers. Truthfulness and impartiality are the topmost responsibilities.
But he also formulated restrictions: Freedom of the press and freedom of thought were not permitted to insult anyone personally, or to attack authority or to call for revolution.
Looking back, with what we know from the past century, perhaps, we might doubt the latter. Otherwise, there might still be an Iron Curtain splitting Europe down the middle. Criticism of existing systems—also by the press—has contributed to the free Europe we live in today.
Wieland’s appeal that freedom of the press not be used to personally insult anyone to me seems more applicable than ever.
All too often, in the accelerating pace of media coverage, the story takes a backseat to the person.
Only with a solid human aspect—so the credo of some media makers—does the news item stand a chance of being read, seen or heard.
Needless to say, some news providers have a fondness for overshooting the target. With the help of the Internet and social media, today, in no time at all, people are pilloried in the media, without having an opportunity to respond in time.
In the digital age, everyone is a citizen journalist and can create a media victim—if in doubt, then anonymously. The spread of allegations and accusations is more uncontrollable and irreversible than in the times when there were “only” printed newspapers with their limited range.
Whatever is written down just once nowadays is permanently retrievable—globally—and can hardly be deleted.
Some members of the media don’t even bother with clean research but adopt as apparent facts—without checking—what others provide digitally. In the race to be the fastest or loudest there is no time to verify assertions.
And in the worst case, reality is so much less spectacular than an alleged sensation or scandal. Sticking to the motto: “I won’t research my beautiful story to death.”
What we need—besides the freedom of the press which stands its ground against censorship and influence-peddling—is a responsible press, today, more than ever.
I already mentioned the 15 journalists killed earlier this year. Are such acts of violence also possible in Germany? A year ago I probably would’ve said no.
But since self-proclaimed saviors of the fatherland and conspiracy theorists have begun taking to the streets on a weekly basis, shouting “media liars”, it’s reinforced my impression that every journalist who takes a critical of their simplistic world view can become a target.
Take the example of the right-wing extremists who, at the beginning of the year, tried to intimidate a critical reporter by distributing a falsified obituary with his name.
It is cases like these that regularly lead to outrage and cause politicians to invoke, in Sunday sermons, the ultimate good of freedom of the press.
We hear less about daily battles over freedom of the press in German editorial offices. Because it happens in a much subtler way. In Germany there is now more than one PR employee for each professional journalist.
These try to insert the messages and interests of their business or political clients in the media.
It’s not just about obvious plugs or crude opinion-making, easily detected as such. Public relations, in the last several decades, has developed into a lucrative business that employs professional journalists who know exactly which morsels can be used to entice their colleagues working for newspapers, radio or TV.
What I want to say: Since the news business is under increasing time and cost pressure, it’s getting harder for editors to differentiate between well-crafted PR and news with actual relevance. When in doubt, they resort to unchecked material because it’s the more convenient and faster option.
In light of this, I could very well imagine a Christoph Martin Wieland, with his stance, as an editor in the 21st century. With the rights and responsibilities he passed along to writers in the 1780s, he would certainly make a good and sought-after adviser for his successors working in present-day editorial offices.
So, dear colleague Wieland: You have the floor!
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