Freedom of speech, not freedom from criticism


There is a fundamental misunderstanding in the current Swedish newspaper controversy — surrounding a report in Sweden’s daily Aftonbladet that the Israel Defense Forces allegedly abducted Palestinians to harvest their organs, and the condemnations, calls for condemnations and disavowals of condemnations that have followed: The debate about freedom of the press is misplaced.

Israel denounced the report, which failed to include any evidence that the allegations had any truth to them, and Sweden’s ambassador to Israel was quick to issue a condemnation. But the Swedish foreign minister then disavowed that condemnation on the principle that the government holds the right to freedom of speech sacrosanct, and criticism of the newspaper would violate that principle.

If Swedish officials prefers not to weigh in on the matter, that’s their prerogative, but citing the press’ freedom of speech as the reason for staying neutral is a feint.

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism.

The newspaper may publish what it wants — though, as even Matthew Cassel of Electronic Initfada (no fan of Israel) points out, printing such a "baseless" report that "lacks credibility" was "highly irresponsible" — but governments also must be free to criticize press reports, or the decision to publish them. It happens at White House news conferences on occasion, it happens in Jerusalem and there’s no reason it shouldn’t happen in Stockholm — especially when the item under discussion is arguably a blood libel with potential dangerous repercussions for the Jewish community.

On the contrary, refraining from criticism runs counter to the spirit of free-speech rights.

By the same token, the Association for Human Rights in Israel apparently fails to understand this distinction. This week, the group criticized the president of Ben-Gurion University for disavowing an Op-Ed in the L.A. Times by a Ben-Gurion professor calling for a boycott of Israel because it is an "apartheid state" (see JTA’s story on this here). If the professor, Neve Gordon, can write the Op-Ed, why can’t the university president make her views known on the matter?

Freedom of speech doesn’t only apply to the press.

And while Aftonbladet has the right to print what it wants, that doesn’t mean it should. Newspapers have a responsibility to readers and to the subjects of their stories to be as fair and accurate as possible, and editors must make judgments in screening stories. Running a story about a clearly far-fetched and damaging allegation with no evidence to support it is just plain bad journalism.

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