Over the weekend Pope Francis delivered a speech about the importance of free expression and press freedom, underscoring the growing threats that people around the world face from disinformation campaigns and the injustice of drowning out the voices of the oppressed.
Addressing members of the Foreign Press Association of Italy at the Vatican, the pope urged journalists “to work according to truth and justice, so that communication is truly an instrument for building, not for destroying; for meeting, not for clashing; for dialoguing, not for monologuing; for orienting, not for disorienting; for understanding, not for misunderstanding; for walking in peace, not for sowing hatred; for giving a voice to those who have no voice, not for being a megaphone to those who shout louder.”
His comments didn’t receive wide attention outside Catholic media. But the pope’s words are an important and refreshing reminder that there are still leaders with massive followings — an estimated 1.3 billion people identify as Catholic — who are willing and able to speak out, with moral clarity, about pressing issues facing the world today.
This pope, who has personal experience with authoritarian rule, knows very well how the manipulation of information and a dictator’s domination of airwaves can have corrosive effects on a society.
He lived through the Dirty War in his native Argentina, where dissent wasn’t stifled — it was obliterated, as tens thousands of people critical of the ruling military junta were “disappeared,” politically killed without a trace.
“Freedom of the press and of expression is an important indicator of the state of a country’s health,” the pope said. “Let’s not forget that one of the first things dictatorships do is remove freedom of the press or mask it, not leaving it free.”
As some of the most powerful people on earth are making their best efforts to obliterate the value of truth, the pope’s message couldn’t be timelier.
Journalism, as we often note, has the power to expose the misdeeds of the powerful. Yet it also has the capacity to bridge misunderstandings and eliminate distrust. The pope was right to point out that modern society seems much better at sowing doubt, polarization and mutual suspicion.
“We need journalists who are on the side of victims, on the side of those who are persecuted, on the side of who is excluded, cast aside, discriminated against,” Pope Francis said. “Who is talking about the Rohingya today? Who is talking about the Yazidi today? They have been forgotten and they continue to suffer.”
More often than ever, though, journalists covering the atrocities faced by threatened communities — such as the Reuters reporters imprisoned in Myanmar for uncovering a massacre of Rohingya — are facing reprisals for their work.
“I listened in pain to the statistics about your colleagues killed while carrying out their work with courage and dedication in so many countries to report on what is happening in wars and other dramatic situations in which so many of our brothers and sisters in the world live,” the pope said, responding to comments by the Italian Foreign Press Association’s president, Patricia Thomas, about the recent killings of several journalists, including Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Significantly, Pope Francis’s defense of press freedom puts him squarely at odds with an increasing number of statesmen who routinely seek to undermine the important role of journalism.
He could have just easily taken his cue from other world leaders by lashing out at the media for exposing difficult truths. This has become the norm, even here in the United States and in parts of the European Union.
The Catholic Church has not been immune from public scrutiny — far from it. The pope even acknowledged the church’s own responsibility to open itself to public criticism. “The Church holds you in esteem, also when you put your finger in a wound, even if the wound is in the Church community.”
This is not exactly how I remember my high school textbooks describing the role of the pope and the concept of papal infallibility. But it’s hard to argue with what he’s saying. On press freedom, the pope is taking a long view. And it’s the right one.