Working in journalism almost unavoidably involves the publication of information prohibited under the dry rules of the laws of lashon ha’ra * Nevertheless, in a democratic state its role has been shown to be essential to maintaining the integrity of elected officials, and strengthening the rule of the people * Consequently, it appears that having a free press is permitted and even a mitzvah, both in terms of its usefulness, and its wide acceptance by the general public
The issue of the media is central to our public lives. There are two principle questions pertaining to it: 1) According to halakha, is there room for a free press that engages in criticism and publication of unfavorable things about people and organizations; or, in a state governed by halakha, due to the prohibition of lashon ha’ra (slander) a free press is forbidden? 2) Assuming that a free press is not prohibited, is being a journalist an unethical job, or acceptable under certain conditions? To answer these two questions, the prohibition of lashon ha’ra must first be defined, and conversely, the role of the media.
The Rules of Lashon Ha’ra and Rechilut (Gossip)
There are three parts to the prohibition: rechilut (gossip), lashon ha’ra (slander), and hotza’at shem ra (libel) (Rambam Hilchot De’ot 7: 2). The least severe of the prohibitions is rechilut, i.e., reporting on the private life of an individual, which does not necessarily have a negative side, but infringes on the person’s privacy. More severe is lashon ha’ra, i.e., a true report of bad deeds or bad behavior of an individual. The most severe is hotza’at shem ra, i.e., publishing evil lies about others.
There are three prohibitions included in the term lashon ha’ra, which is considered one of the most severe sins because it poisons society and all inter-personal relations, to the point where our Sages compared it to the three most severe sins all together – idol worship, incest, and bloodshed – and even worse than them, given that the First Holy Temple was destroyed because of the three sins for seventy years, while the Second Holy Temple was destroyed for baseless hatred and lashon ha’ra for an extremely long period of time (Yoma 9b; Archin 15b).
It is Seemingly Forbidden to be a Journalist
According to this, it would seem there is no heter (halakhic permission) to permit a free press, and no heter to work as a journalist, since this is a profession whose entire goal is to search out flaws in people or groups and publicize them, which is the prohibition of lashon ha’ra. What’s more, since naturally journalists are unable to investigate every story until the end, they will often transgress the sin of hotza’at shem ra. Beyond that, in order to interest media consumers, rechilut is often spoken about famous personalities and leading institutions.
Likewise, because the main job of journalists’ is to find fault with people and publicize it, they are considered baalei lashon ha’ra (habitual speakers of lashon ha’ra), about whom Rabbeinu Yonah wrote that they are like flies which are always attracted to filthy places, and see evil in their friends, and this is a sign that they themselves are evil (Shaarei Teshuvah 3, 217), in the same manner of our Sages statement: ‘Kol haposel, be-mumo posel’ – someone who makes accusations about others will invariably project his own problem on others” (Kiddushin 70a).
And although it is permissible to say things in condemnation of others when it is useful, such as to save a person from falling into a trap in a business deal with a dishonest partner or to marry an unsuitable spouse, after all, according to the explanation in rule ten of the book ‘Chafetz Chaim’ the conditions to speak lashon ha’ra are extremely limited. First, a person is allowed to speak lashon ha’ra only if he had firsthand knowledge of the incident and not to repeat what he heard from others, which is usually not the case with a journalist. Another condition is to rebuke the subject first, that is to say, if the speaker thinks that if he discusses the matter with the offending party directly, there will be a positive outcome, he must speak with him before publicizing the issue to others. If so, it is impossible to have a free press, since everyone who is rebuked will immediately declare he regrets what he did and intends to change his ways, but the journalist has no way to verify his intention. And another condition is that the speaker has constructive intentions, only to be helpful, whereas a journalist earns a living from his disclosures and benefits from them.
The Role of the Media in a Democratic Society
In contrast, we will move on to the positive value journalism: it is commonly agreed that a democratic state cannot exist without freedom of the press, and to that end, society and government must allow, and even encourage, a diverse, independent, and free press. In general, the media has three roles: 1) to inquire. 2) To express viewpoints that can bring about a change in public attitudes. 3) To serve the public by conveying information.
The first role, to inquire, is the most important of the three, and it touches on the question of lashon ha’ra. The media probes the government, which has the power to carry out important matters and even to hide them, and the more power the media has to publish criticism of the government’s actions, the more careful it is not to violate law and morality. The role of the media is also to probe powerful and influential agents such as manufacturers, dealers, leaders in the fields of religion, culture and society and public institutions, which sometimes mislead the public, and the free press can expose their lies, and thereby benefit the public.
In order for the media to fulfill its role, in democracies, it is stipulated by law or by an agreement enshrined in court rulings that except in extraordinary cases, journalists must be granted confidentiality so they will not be required to disclose the source of the information. In other words, even though they obtained the information illegally, out of improper motives of competition and retaliation, there is agreement to waive the enforcement of the law against the leaker of the information. Specifically, there is agreement to waive petty crimes in order to prevent significant damage to the public, and to thwart the major crimes of those in power that the media scrutinizes.
The Benefit in Journalistic Enquiry
The benefit of journalistic enquiry is both on the criminal and moral level. On the criminal level: 1) Instead of placing battalions of police in all places to enforce the law and prevent crime, in a democracy, freedom of press prevents many crimes through the deterrence of publication of investigations. 2) Even after committing crimes, although there is no evidence that can lead to a conviction in court, in consequence of journalistic inquiry, criminals refrain from continuing their actions. 3) Occasionally, thanks to the investigations, evidence emerges that matures into indictments.
And on the moral level: the media investigates acts that are not criminally culpable, but in practice, harm the public, such as investigations of useless products, drugs, and healers, or censure of fraudulent leaders or counselors, thus allowing the public to consider and choose whether to continue believing them.
The Aspect of Mitzvah in the Three Levels
According to this, from three aspects media conducted by halakha fulfills a mitzvah. First, the fear of the media is beneficial as a general rebuke designed to remedy sinners from their transgressions, as the Torah says: “You must admonish your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). Second, saving people and society in general from corrupt people and groups, as written: “Do not stand still when your neighbor’s life is in danger” (Leviticus 19:16), and this mitzvah also includes the removal of obstacles, and the prevention of harm from others. Third, the moral value of condemning the wicked and acts of injustice, in order to rectify society (Shaarei Teshuvah 3: 218; Chafetz Chaim 10: 4).
The First Foundation for a Heter: The Public Benefit
We find then, there are two grounds for permitting a critical and free press, even when it cannot meticulously guard the conditions explained in the ‘Chafetz Chaim’.
The first foundation: the vast benefit to the general public, for the principle rule in all the laws of lashon ha’ra is that when there is significant benefit, it is permissible to say something derogatory about another person. For example, in order to save him from entering into a partnership with a person whose credibility is in doubt, or from a shidduch (match) with a person whose character traits are not adequate. Similarly, in a democracy, it is permitted for citizens to speak disparagingly of public figures or groups that are conducted improperly, because of the great public benefit of doing so. This benefit concerns everyone, because in a democracy, each individual is a partner in the management of public life, and if he hears that under the responsibility of a certain minister or mayor, acts of corruption or negligence have occurred, he can vote for another candidate (God-willing, on another occasion I will explain how these issues are also consistent with the ‘Chafetz Chaim’).
The Second Foundation: Public Consent
The second foundation: on top of the recognition of the great benefit of having a free press – something that has become clear over many years through trial and error – there has been widespread public agreement in all democracies in favor of a critical, independent, and incisive media. This public consensus holds similar validity to the weight of the well-known rule ‘dina de’malchuta dina’, according to which the government has the right to legislate and impose taxes on citizens, and to punish those who break the law or do not pay tax. And it should not be argued that the government robs the citizens by imposing a tax on them, and infringes on their rights while enacting laws and punishing those who violate them, because all citizens have agreed to waive some of their rights in order to have government rule, for if not, society would crumble, and every man would swallow his neighbor alive. Indeed, citizens who are harmed by the strong arm of the government resent it, still, they do not question its authority, as they also admit and agree that it is better to have a government than the chaos that is liable to prevail without it, and in doing so, give the government the right to legislate and collect taxes.
Similarly, society as a whole has agreed that in order to maintain a democratic government that gives more rights and freedoms to citizens and does less harm, it is necessary to have a free and incisive press, which will protect the citizens from those in power and control who are capable of harming them. And although almost always, those who are harmed by the media feel they have been wronged, they still agree with the principle that a free press is necessary. In such a situation, any person who decides to enter public life, thereby agrees to expose himself to media criticism, because these are the rules society has set.
In conclusion, even in a state governed by halakha, it is mutar (halachically permissible) and even a mitzvah to maintain a free, divulging, and investigative media – even if the journalists themselves do not fulfill their role out of good motives – provided the condemnation touches on individuals whose activities have a public impact, and the criticism concerns an aspect related to their public influence.
It is still worthwhile to clarify whether, and how, a God-fearing person can engage in such a free and critical media according to the rules of halakha. I will discuss that at another time.
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.